Episode 253

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Prior to the economic downturn in ‘07-’08, I worked with a lot of agency owners who were very adamant that they would never outsource any of their services. Then the recession hit. Agencies were forced to trim their payroll and job-out projects to 1099s and other partners. Today, 99% of the agencies I work with have a hybrid business model that incorporates some type of outsourcing. When done well, this is actually a benefit to your clients so the question becomes how can you make this work in your agency? Brian Gerstner joins us in this episode of Build a Better Agency to explain how we can build and maintain strong partnerships that work well for all concerned.

Brian Gerstner has over twenty years of experience working with agency owners across the globe. He currently serves as the Creative Services Director for Huebner Marketing and the presenting sponsor of this podcast, White Label IQ. Brian offers a unique perspective on working with freelancers and outsourced service providers because he understands the nuances that influence these working relationships as both an agency creative director and the guy who heads up an outsourced resource.

Like most relationships, making it a rewarding experience for everyone takes work, commitment, and consistent communication. Listen to Brian’s tips and learn how to incorporate outsourced labor into your business model in a way that serves everyone well.

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 | Smart outsourcing for agencies

What You Will Learn in This Episode:

  • How agency owners can be a good partner to their outsourced partners and vice versa
  • How to pick the right outsource partner for your agency’s needs
  • What outsource partners should bring to the table to improve the workflow
  • How to manage communication with your partners under a compressed timeline
  • How White Lable IQ demonstrates technical expertise to people who aren’t technical
  • How to know when it’s time to pull the plug on a partnership
  • How to set clear expectations with your outsource partners
  • Why outsourcing is a great way to try before you buy
  • How to disclose your outsource partners to your clients

The Golden Nuggets:

“The outsource model allows us to bring the best solution to clients instead of picking a solution based on internal capacity.” Brian Gerstner Click To Tweet “One of the Truths about being a great partner to our outsourced partners is that it is still a collaborative effort.” Brian Gerstner Click To Tweet “Agency partners have core competencies that are unique to them. If you can provide the execution strategy, you will drastically improve the working relationship.” Brian Gerstner Click To Tweet “When I look for an outsource partner, I look for someone who can solve problems with me.” Brian Gerstner Click To Tweet “We expect an outsource partner to jump in and get it, but we would never expect an employee to understand everything about our agency on the first day. Sometimes that sets our partnerships up for failure.” Brian Gerstner Click To Tweet

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Ways to contact Brian Gerstner:

Speaker 1:

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 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 with another episode of Build a Better Agency. Super glad you’re with us. Sending good health wishes to all of you. So I know this is a super stressful time, and I am really grateful that you are choosing to spend some of it with me, so thank you so much for that.

Couple things I want to remind you about before I tell you about the show. Number one is, if you are interested in using some of this time to really focus on who your best clients are as you come out of the gate and you start really thinking it’s time to start selling again, if you want to really define who your agency can delight over and over again, and as a result, who’s going to stick around and be a long-term client that’s super profitable for you, head over to agencymanagementinstitute.com/client-filter. So again, agencymanagementinstitute.com/client-filter. And there you will find a PDF with some exercises in it that we have created for you to help you really identify which client is great for you.

Every client is great for somebody, but they are not all great for us. And I think we’ve all experienced that when we had that weird spidey sense that maybe a prospect wasn’t quite the right fit, but either the money was good or our backs were against the wall or we just chose to ignore it. For whatever reason, we brought them on as a client, and then we paid a pretty significant price. And so I am a firm believer in knowing who your sweet spot clients are and going after them and really actually grading every prospect that walks in your door, whether it’s someone you’ve pursued or someone who just knocked on your door, to make sure that they are a good fit for you. And this tool will help you do that, so I hope you will take advantage of that.

All right, so let me tell you a little bit about our awesome guest today. So, today … and this was really a big shift after the ’07, ’08 recession. I had a lot of agency owners prior to ’07 who were very adamant that they were never, ever, ever going to outsource anything. They believed that part of their claim to fame was that all of the talent that it took to serve their clients was under their roof. And then a recession came, and for a lot of agencies, the only way they could survive that recession was to trim their payroll, because for most of you, that is without a doubt your largest cost center.

And so, agencies were forced to start using outsourced partners. Some of you have been doing this for a super long time and it’s just part of your business model, but today I would say that 99% of agencies that I know, that we work with, that I bump into at conferences, about 99% of you are some sort of a hybrid where you have this core team that is your employees, your W-2 employees, and then you’ve got a host of 1099 folks or other agencies or partners who support you and typically have an expertise in something that you don’t have enough demand for to have full-time staff. And that’s exactly my guest’s perspective today.

So Brian Gerstner is the creative services director for both Huebner Marketing and the presenting sponsor of this podcast, White Label IQ. And what makes Brian a really interesting guest is that he has this very unique perspective on how to be a good outsourcing partner, both as the agency, like how do you be a good partner, but also, if you’re the one that’s being outsourced to, how do you be a good partner in that. Because honestly, like all relationships, when it doesn’t go well, there’s plenty of blame to go around at both sides of that equation. And for many of us, having partners that we can count on, we can rely on, that really get us and get our clients and care as much about our clients as we do is critical to our business success.

And so, I thought Brian being on the show and talking about how to do this well was perfect, because he has this very unique perspective. So he’s got more than 20 years of agency experience, and he’s just a great guy. I’ve known him for, gosh, more than a decade and he is generous with what he knows, he’s always quick to help people, so I know he’s going to be generous with his comments and information here today. And what I love about Brian is that he just calls a spade a spade. He’s just a straight shooter and he will help us navigate this. And I think for all of us, this is an important skillset, an important attitude for us to have in our agencies, and so I am anxious to pick his brain. So let’s get started.

All right, Brian, welcome to the podcast. Thanks for joining us.

Brian Gerstner:

Hey. Thank you, Drew. I’ve really been looking forward to this conversation.

Drew McLellan:

So the listeners here me talk about White Label all the time, obviously, because I’m talking about you guys as a presenting sponsor. But one of the reasons why I wanted to have you on the show today is because, more and more, agencies are moving to this hybrid model where they have some staff, but they’re also outsourcing a lot of their work to trusted partners, new partners, things like that. And you guys, because you’re an agency but you’re also somebody that agencies outsource to, you have a very interesting lens into this, I think, and I think can help agencies think about how they are an outsource partner and how they can get the most from their partner. But part of that is on them, right?

Brian Gerstner:

Absolutely. And I find it really intriguing because, as we work with our own clients, we have the tail-end of that experience all the time, so we’re constantly talking about how it’d be nice if we had a greater brief for the timelines or the timing that it takes to get to that. So, when we are working with our own outsources, and when we’re working with clients, we always try and look in the mirror and try and be that best client that we can be. Situationally, things always change a little bit and we need to be able to be responsive to our clients, and sometimes that causes fully condensed timelines and you have a plan and can’t be what we want it to be. But we have that unique perspective as agencies to see both sides of that relationship.

Drew McLellan:

Right. I think universal, I’m sure when cavemen opened agencies, they were complaining about bad briefs and timelines. I think that’s just Achilles’ heel for our industry, for sure. But I think the computer and the speed at which we work today has just escalated both of those pain points for agencies, don’t you?

Brian Gerstner:

No, absolutely, because not only are they condensed, but our audiences and our clients’ audiences, they expect things to happen much faster. Marketing, very timely process. You have to be there at the moment [inaudible 00:08:07] messages. So yeah, everybody’s expectations with 24-hour news cycle and just how quickly things move just accelerate it.

Drew McLellan:

One of the things I think that’s challenging if you are … And I think this is challenging for agencies. I think it’s also challenging for our outsourced partners, but when someone drops a bag of a problem at your feet and says, “Okay, solve it.” I think one of the truths about being a great partner to our outsource partners is that it still is a collaborative effort, and that it still requires that we work together as opposed to me just dumping and running, right?

Brian Gerstner:

Well, it does. And I think it goes back to an earlier podcast and a study that you’ve done recently where you talk about what clients are looking for, whether they’re looking for love, they’re playing the field, or they’re much more transactional. So, if you do need a situation where you could quickly take a project and just quickly throw it over the wall or jump it, you need to have done a lot of that legwork. You need to be looking for love in those situations. You can only be successful in that situation if you have trust and faith and you know that the communication with that partner is already in place. So when you are in a more playing the field or transactional type relationship, it’s going to be a lot more difficult and you will have a lot more communication and administrative time in that project.

So, back to the point, even with our own clients, when you are in the position to look for love and have that type of partnership, you do gain a lot of advantages down the line because you can throw things over. They already know your expectations, the quality of the processes that you go through, and you’re starting from a position in advantage.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. And I think a lot of agencies do have trusted partners that they go back to over and over. And it’s like a dance partner. The more you dance together, the more you know how they’re going to move and when they’re going to move. And I think that’s true for us, too. So, how do you guys help your agency clients learn your dance moves? How do you as an outsource partner … And what should people be looking for in their outsource partner that shows that they are ready to help the agency do the dance?

Brian Gerstner:

Absolutely. So, as a partner, often you are a partner because you’re not part of that agency’s core competency. Agencies, what they do best will often keep that work in-house or at least make sure that they have people on staff that are authorities. So when they’re coming to you, you have to be able to provide as much strategy and just the really smart questions going into the project. Because one, you can define the scope or be part of that discovery process to define what the actual project will be, to educate your partner to tell them what it’s actually going to take, so that they can also communicate and relay that information with their own clients. Really helps that whole process from beginning to end.

So, when you ask about how we help people, whenever possible, we ask to be part of the early conversations, even if we’re just a fly on the wall during that discovery process, or some agencies who allow us to participate in the conversation with the clients. And then we come back with a lot of questions. We come back with feedback to help define how this process will be and try to help define a lot of those milestones that are going to come up through there.

One of the other things during the process is, of course communication as we’ve been talking about. You hit snafus in that process. And we find the best way to be helpful is to, if there is bad news or if there’s a change or a difficulty coming up, that we’re communicating that as quickly as possible so that they can speak to the clients and we can shift if necessary. One of my mentors told me, “Bad news does not get better with time.” So just being as absolutely upfront with people and candid, but also bringing out best game forward for our partners.

Drew McLellan:

I would guess that a lot of times when you get a new client, time is of the essence. So they’ve waited too long, they thought they could do it in-house, they had something happen internally that meant all of a sudden they had to outsource, or the client’s just putting a lot of pressure on them, and it took them a while to find you perhaps. So, while it’s awesome to have a lot of time, I think the reality for all of us in the agency space is it’s pretty rare today to actually get the amount of time you want to have to do the best work you can do. I think we are always working under a compressed timeline. And I think it’s more complicated when you’re playing a little bit of telephone where it’s like, “The client tells me something, and then I have to tell you something.” So how do you guys try and shore up that game of telephone in a compressed timeline? How do you help your clients manage the difficult timelines that I’m sure you’re handed all the time?

Brian Gerstner:

First of all, on our side, it’s being prepared. So when we structure our staff, because we work with a lot of different agencies, we’re able to support a lot of people with very specific skillsets. So as we look at our own staffing and being able to handle surges in large projects and opportunities as they come about, our goal is always to keep a bit of excess bandwidth. To keep one person in every department and skillset so that we’re not always operating at max and that we can jump, we can pivot, we can assign additional resources to get there.

But also, the key thing too is the people on our side on the US … And we do a lot of not only work inside of our office in Loveland, Colorado, but we do a lot of international outsourcing. And when we look at our core competencies, we always keep somebody who has authority over those specific skillsets, whether it be design or development and content. So we have someone who can pivot, who can plan immediately, who knows our team, and that we can quickly ask the questions. We have the bandwidth to pivot and reprioritize as needed.

But as I alluded a little bit earlier, just communication. A lot of talking. Trying to get in there, be part of that discovery. Because, when we’re moving really fast, we need to understand why, because we’re making a lot of decisions on our side in how to meet that scope, and trying to make sure that, when we come up and we start doing the initial presentations and rounds, that we’re on brief, that we’re there with what we need to be. So through the process, we elevate communication. We’ll have one, two, three meetings a week to check in. And because we’re working with agencies, we have this beautiful ability to incorporate them in, for lack of a better word, the sausage making, as it’s [crosstalk 00:15:49].

Drew McLellan:

Right. Yeah, it’s a little different than working directly with the client where you don’t want to talk about all the places that are problematic. With an agency partner, you can just have those candid conversations.

Brian Gerstner:

Absolutely, because on the client side, they’re coming to you for the solution, coming to you for the expertise. So, they don’t want to see it made. They want to be able to focus on what they’re doing, and they’re hiring you as an outsourcer also because they have other responsibilities, they have other priorities that they need to focus on.

Drew McLellan:

So your organization is this hybrid. You have an agency and then you have White Label, and your role on the agency side is you’re the creative director, and in charge of all creative services. So you’re also hiring, you’re also outsourcing. Looking at it from both of your perspectives, both as the creative director of … You’ve been at Huebner for how long?

Brian Gerstner:

About 10 years now.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. So in that role and also in your role at White Label, what have you learned about how to identify good partners? Because I know you’re doing it for the agency, and I know it’s being done to you as an outsource partner, so what are best practices around identifying the right outsource partner?

Brian Gerstner:

Really a lot is reputation and responsibility. And I should say reputation and recommendations. So, I try to be, as much as possible, a social butterfly, to talk to peers. Just being able to participate in a lot of the interactions through agency management institution like the digital summit and just being able to talk to people. Always asking about, “How do you do this work? How do you get that done? Who do you work with?” And laying that groundwork.

And with Huebner, although I’ve only been with them for 10 years, it’s a 30-year agency. We’ve had a lot of time to get to know a lot of people. And as a fully integrated agency, just basically meaning that we are the agency of record a lot of time for our clients and we have to serve a large breadth of work, and we have a lot of friends.

So to your question, doing that groundwork, trying to build all those relationships, and even when we don’t have something for a particular partner of ours, just trying to stay in contact, send them a card, or call and see how they’re doing. Say hello. See how they’re doing. And keep that line of communication going.

When I’m looking for specifics, like how do I vet this particular outsource partner-

Drew McLellan:

Right, because in a lot of cases, you’re vetting someone who has a skill that you don’t know. So it would be like me deciding if somebody was a great auto mechanic. I don’t have any of that skillset.

Brian Gerstner:

So, in that regard, personally when I’m talking, I’m looking for someone who can take a concept and build upon it and talk to me as a person and try just to explain it in a way that I can understand, because I need that communication. So, in interviewing and talking, I’ll ask a question. I always look for people to keep going on, because I want people that are passionate about what they do. I want people who have a lot of experience and can bring up stories or tell me about something they’ve had and are honest about times it didn’t work, or how they came and solved problems. Because at the end of the day, we’re selling ideas and we’re trying to solve the problems to generate those, make those ideas real. So I need someone who can solve problems with me.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. So I’m sure that you’ve had people kick your tires on the White Label side in a lot of different ways. Again, because a lot of people who are hiring you don’t know PPC or dev. They probably are more familiar on the design side, but certainly on the dev and the PPC side, that’s a foreign language to them. So how have you guys developed the ability to reassure … I mean, yes, when someone that someone trusts says, “Yes, you need to call White Label,” that’s obviously the white glove of opportunities to become a partner, and that’s the easiest way to do that. But assuming that that hasn’t happened or that the recommendation is softer, perhaps, than that, hod do you guys demonstrate that you have the technical expertise that you need to have to people who aren’t technical?

Brian Gerstner:

At first, we talk about our structure. People need to understand our values, how we hire, how we work, how we document, and talking about our process. And in that, we’re really trying to illustrate what they should expect during this process. And in those conversations, we start to find out if what we provide aligns with what they need. And that’s not always the case. So it’s really hard for agencies and even for us as White Label, but there’s a lot of times we do have to come to the table and just say, “Hey, we really want to be able to help them, but I just don’t think we’re a perfect fit, but let me point you over here.”

Drew McLellan:

Right. Which honestly, in my mind, is part of the credibility of … Anybody who says they can help everybody all the time, you feel like, “Okay, you’re blowing a little smoke up my skirt now.”

Brian Gerstner:

We find, even when we come to people who are looking for our help and we say, the majority of those people come back eventually. If they understand a little more of what our unique niche is, then they will come back to us just because, just as you said, there is credibility for not being overly ambitious.

Drew McLellan:

Right, and not promising things that maybe you can’t deliver.

Brian Gerstner:

Exactly.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. Again, you wear this dual, interesting hat. There are also times when it just doesn’t work, and you are feeling like the partnership isn’t happening. And so, from your perspective, how do you know when you’ve invested enough time, enough energy to try and fix something, a partnership that’s not working? How do you know when it’s time to pull the plug and find a different partner?

Brian Gerstner:

Yeah. Well, just in general on our side, because we do use a lot of outsourcing people with Huebner Marketing particularly, there are situations where maybe there can be some quality issues, or the deliverables aren’t what you expected. And from my perspective, a lot of that can be solved. It’s typically not always that agency or that person’s fault. A lot of times it’s my fault because I’m busy. You’re juggling a lot of balls and you didn’t have time to develop the [inaudible 00:23:13]. You didn’t have time to maybe describe what that deliverable’s going to be or really think about the milestones properly.

So, I find communication’s the key thing. If in my gut I feel that I’m not able to communicate or this person’s not taking me seriously or I’m not getting their attention the way I need, that’s when I feel that you need to pull the plug quickly, because a lot of those other elements as far as quality control and timing and all that can be worked out. And it’s a two-way road there.

But there is a little bit of that because, as you’re working with an outsourcing person, it’s not just someone over here you’re throwing stuff to the wall with. We really try to think, “This is like an employee we’re bringing on.” We have to go through some degree of an onboarding process just as we would with someone bringing in-house. They have to fit culturally. They have to speak the language. There has to be mutual respect. And it’s really that gut feeling of whether they’re going to work well within our group to how we really finalize if it’s going to be a good relationship or not.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah, that’s such a great point that we expect an outsource partner to just jump in and get it, but we would never expect an employee to be able to walk in on their first day, sit down at their desk, and just start working without any input or onboarding from us. And so, we probably set some of those outsource relationships up for failure because we start with this fallacy idea that it’s going to be magically instantaneous.

Brian Gerstner:

That’s true. And when we look at what we’re outsourcing, those expectations are different. So, if what the agency is outsourcing is part of the core of what they do really well, and it’s just an issue of bandwidth or they’re outsourcing things that are really well-documented a