Episode 235

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Odds are you cannot remember a more tumultuous time in your agency. You probably endured through 9/11 but we understood what happened and why. You probably survived the 07-08 recession but we saw it coming and had time to plan and adjust. Covid-19 brings a rare and overwhelming combination of a health scare, human isolation, and an economic shutdown all in one fell swoop. No wonder you’re feeling a bit frantic. That’s why I’m worried about you. If you can’t stand strong through this, your agency is in trouble.

The way we lead our agency through this is by acknowledging how hard it is and taking care of ourselves. We have to recognize that we’re grieving right now and because of that, we’re experiencing a wide range of emotions from terror to anger to a need to just keep moving.

All of that is natural and to be expected. But it’s not helpful. In this episode we’re going to talk about grieving, about accepting the loss and deciding what path makes the most sense for your shop. Beyond that – we’re going to talk about how YOU survive this and lead your team to the better days that we know are waiting for us around the corner.

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: https://www.whitelabeliq.com/ami/

Agency Owners | A very personal message to agency owners – how to survive the covid chaos

What You Will Learn in This Episode:

  • How agency owners can overcome the mental hurdles of being the ship’s captain in time of crisis
  • What we’re going through as agency leaders and what we can do to survive the storm
  • How to overcome the sense of loss and grief the pandemic has brought upon us
  • Tools and resources agency owners can use to navigate new challenges brought by the COVID-crisis
  • Why agency owners need to take care of themselves before they can take care of anyone else
  • How you can use this period of change to rethink the way you do business
“I am not worried that you’ll survive the storm, I am worried about what the storm is doing to you and the toll it takes to be the ship’s captain.” @DrewMcLellan Click To Tweet “Sometimes loss is simply an acknowledgment that things aren’t how they were or how you wanted them to be.” @DrewMcLellan Click To Tweet “You’ve got to stay strong and stay healthy otherwise your ship has no chance of reaching calm waters..” @DrewMcLellan Click To Tweet “In your busyness, the person you’re not taking care of is you.” @DrewMcLellan Click To Tweet “Right now, agency owners are the captain of their ship and the ship is in the middle of a perilous storm. But all storms fade and go away.” @DrewMcLellan Click To Tweet

AMI works with agency owners by:

  • Leading agency owner peer groups
  • Offering workshops for agency owners and their leadership teams
  • Offering AE Bootcamps
  • Conducting individual agency owner coaching
  • Doing on-site consulting
  • Offering online courses in agency new business and account service

Because he works with over 250+ agencies every year, Drew has the unique opportunity to see the patterns and the habits (both good and bad) that happen over and over again. He has also written several books, including Sell With Authority (2020) and been featured in The New York Times, Forbes, Entrepreneur Magazine, and Fortune Small Business. The Wall Street Journal called his blog “One of 10 blogs every entrepreneur should read.”

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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. Welcome back if you’re a regular listener. If this is your first episode, welcome. Welcome to a community of agency owners and leaders from all over the world, who come together to talk about how to do it better. Boy, we are in an interesting time. You know, I find myself, when I’m recording a video or any sort of podcast, where it’s either my own podcast or I’m a guest on someone else’s, I feel the need to give you the date that we are recording the podcast because things are changing so fast right now because of COVID-19, that it seems like it is relevant to know exactly when anything you’re listening to or reading was created. This is actually Sunday, March 29th that I am recording this.

We have been crazy busy the last two weeks at AMI, just making sure that agency owners and leaders are informed of what’s going on around the world, that we are helping you navigate, especially here in North America and in Europe, and a little bit in Australia, New Zealand, where all of a sudden it seems like the virus has hit hard. And for many of us, we are working from home. Many agencies are seeing some pretty big disruptions in business, and I’ll talk you about that in just a minute. But, we have been crazy busy with regular updates via the e-newsletter. We’ve got a page on our website where we’re updating it with resources every single week. They’re organized by week, but really we’re updating them every day. If you got to agencymanagementinstitute.com/covid, you will find that resource page.

Some of it is stuff that we’re creating, videos and podcasts, and things like that. In other cases, it’s we’re sourcing documents to help people with, if you’re here in the States, navigating the CARE Act. We are sharing things from agency owners around the world, who have already been through this. We’re just trying to be, as best we can, a place you can come to get good, solid advice, you can get a good perspective on what’s happening with other agencies, and you can get some support. That’s super important to me, that we continue to do that.

Please, if you are not receiving our e-newsletter, pop me an email. Or, if you go over to agencymanagementinstitute.com, you can click on the contact us navigation button, and you can fill out a little form, give us your email address and say you would like to get the newsletter. Visit the COVID page on a regular basis, because that’s constantly changing. And of course, you reach out to me at [email protected] any time, am happy to help. Please be patient if it takes me a better part of a day to get back to. As you might imagine, my email box is exploding a bit. Which is good, that’s why we’re here, we’re here to be a resource for you. I am not complaining, I’m just saying please be patient if it takes me a little bit of time.

Let me give you a lay of the land of what’s happening in agencies today, and then we can talk about the topic that I want to talk about today. This is a solo cast, so what that means is no guest with me today. It’s just you and me together, talking about some things that are on my mind, that I want to plant in your head as well.

As of today, March 29th, what I’m seeing is this very wide range of reality for agencies. By the way, I’m talking to agency owners pretty much non-stop, from seven in the morning until about midnight every day, just talking about their situation, coaching them through it. Mostly these are my member agencies, of course. But, I think they represent a good, broad spectrum. I certainly have an idea of what’s happening in 250 or more agencies in the last 10 days.

For a small group of you, I would say 15 or 20 percent, it’s business as usual. Yes, you’re working from home but your clients have not slowed down. In some cases, your clients have picked up the pace and you’re actually busier than you were before. If you have healthcare clients of folks like that, people in essential services, for some reason your mix of clients have not really been impacted by the virus, and the slowdown here in the States, with everybody working from home and businesses being closed.

On the other end of the spectrum, another 20% of my agencies have been really hit hard. So 30, 40, 50 plus percent of their AGI has been paused. In most cases, it’s not the client saying, “You’re fired,” or, “We’re never going to do this.” Although, for some of my experiential agencies or media shops, obviously they can’t get back that time, they can’t get back that trade show. So for some of them, they’ve really been hit pretty hard.

And then, in the middle is the other 60% of you, which is that you are certainly feeling some impact from this, but it might be 10% loss of your AGI, it might be 20%, 25%. I know that you’re anxious and you’re worried about the other shoe dropping. What will the rest of the clients do?

I will tell you, based on conversations I’ve had with agency owners from around the globe, who perhaps are a little ahead of us, like Kiri Sinclair was in last week’s episode, from Hong Kong. The first couple weeks of this, when your country, wherever you may be, is really hit hard by this, that’s when if a client’s going to go dark, or pause or slowdown, that’s typically when they do it. It’s not a long, drawn out decision, it’s a pretty quick decision. The client’s that are still chugging on will continue to chug on. If, by the time you hear this, which will be the first full week of April, for many of you, you’ll know what the landscape is going to be with your clients, you’ll know who is going to keep working and whose going to slow down or pause for a while. Hopefully, that’ll help you breathe a little easier. But that’s the lay of the land, as of today.

Again, please take full advantage of the resources we have on the resource page, so agencymanagementinstitute.com/covid. Please, if you are not getting our weekly e-newsletter, or again I’m updating you on what I’m seeing on the landscape, it’s really been pretty COVID focused. Not about the virus obviously, I’m not a doctor or a scientist, it’s really about how does your business survive through this. As you know, I am leaning heavily on the metaphor that we are a ship’s captains, we are in the middle of a doozy of a storm, a perilous storm absolutely, but storms lose their power and go away. And this, too, will lose its power and go away, and we will be back to calm waters. It’s our job to get us to the calm waters. I’m trying to be as big, and consistent, and probably to the angst of some, frequent resource as we can be. So if we can be helpful to you, more so than we are being today, I hope that you’ll take advantage of that and let us help.

On the COVID page, by the way, we’re not asking for email addresses, it’s not behind a firewall, we’re not going to send you a drip campaign about anything. It’s just I just want to help. So please, take advantage of anything that is there, and if something doesn’t pertain to you then just ignore it.

I want to talk today … I’m worried. I’m not worried that you will survive the storm, I’m not worried about that. I know you will survive the storm. Your agency may look different when we get to the calm waters, you may be smaller, you may have pivoted. Some of you may be doing different kinds of work than you’ve done before. But, I’m not worried that you’ll survive. I know that if you’ve been following the metrics that AMI preaches and that you’ve been running a good fiscally sound ship that, if you make good decisions all the way through this, and you don’t ignore what’s happening. If you have to shrink your staff size, or you have to do something else, that you do it, understanding that it’s your job to get the ship back to the calm waters, I’m not worried about that. I’m worried about what the storm is doing to you, and the toll that it takes to be the captain.

That’s really what I want to talk about today, is I know it sounds like a cliché, but the reality is you’ve got to stay strong, and you’ve got to stay healthy, otherwise the ship has no chance of getting to those calm waters. So that’s really where I want to focus, is talking about what we’re going through as business leaders, agency owners and leaders, and how we can survive the storm.

Like I said, I have been talking to agency owners pretty much non-stop for the last couple weeks. So by the time you hear this, the last three weeks, I have been spending my time with agency owners in groups, on Zoom calls, and individually on the phone. It feels like 24/7, but I do take a few hours off to sleep because I, too, am trying to stay healthy. But, I hear this tone in every conversation, and it doesn’t matter whether or not the agency has been affected, whether the agency is busier than normal, whether the agency has been decimated with clients hitting the pause button, that doesn’t really matter. The tone, what I hear underneath, is the same. I want to acknowledge it, and I want to make sure you see it. I want to talk to you about what I hope that you will do about it.

Many of you know that, a couple years ago, in a very short span of time, I lost both of my parents. Without any exaggeration, those were probably the most horrific days of my life, and I still grieve for them today. My mom went first, and I knew it was going to be the worst day of my life and it was. But, I was with her at the end, and she was in a nursing home. She had had dementia for several years. I was with her until the end, and I stayed with her body for quite a while after she had passed. And then, because she had donated her body to a medical school so that hey could study her body after she was gone, the medical school came to come and collect her. I sat in her room for a little bit, and then I looked around and I looked at all her stuff, and I got to work. I started packing up all her things, and that night I had her completely moved out of the nursing home.

I didn’t really stop working for a couple weeks. I was the executor of her will, and I had a lot of things to do and I stayed super busy. I didn’t sleep very much, and I was on task. I was crushing it. I was getting things done, I was notifying people, I was planning the memorial service, I was writing the eulogy, I wrote the obit. I did all the things I was supposed to do. While I certainly, emotionally, was struggling with the loss, I was able to push it aside a little bit because I was so busy. And, I didn’t really acknowledge the grief that I was going through, or that I was avoiding going through. I’m seeing that same behavior in a lot of you, right now.

Let’s make no mistake about this. You are grieving. You are grieving, even if your agency has not been financial affected, you are grieving. What is happening to us right now in our businesses was not in the plan. This is not what any of you had planned 2020 to be, it is not what you wanted. Many of you have been plating biz dev seeds for months, maybe a year, and they were starting to come to fruition. For many agencies, January 2020 was very unusual in that it was busier than you have had a January in eons. You were coming out of the gate, out of the holidays, out of that holiday hibernation at a very rapid clip. Clients were calling, prospects were calling, you were busy. And then, all of a sudden, this hit and it changed everything.

Even if you are still active and busy, and your clients have not hit the pause button, things have changed. You’re working from home, you are not spending time with your team, you are fielding questions and calls. And most of all, you’re worried about what’s coming next. So first and foremost, I want you to recognize that you have suffered a loss. And, is it as significant as losing a parent? Of course not. But, that does not negate the fact that it’s a loss, and it’s a loss of what you hoped 2020 would be. Some of you may have already had to cut staff, so it’s a loss of team members, maybe a loss of client relationships. It certainly is a loss of the financial security that you thought you were walking into 2020 with. Or maybe, you are acknowledging now that you’re not going to hit a goal that you set at the beginning of the year. Sometimes loss is simply an acknowledgement that things aren’t what they were, or what you wanted them to be.

But, I have become an expert in grieving, and frankly in how to do it badly, and then how that bites you in the rear end later on. For many of you, what I’m seeing in you is exactly what I did after my mom passed away. And by the way, I wasn’t super better about it after my dad passed away, but at least I had learned a little bit from my mom’s passing. But, I still allowed being busy and taking care of everybody else to get in the way of me taking care of myself, and what was going on in my head and heart. But, I’m seeing that now, I’m seeing a lot of you aren’t sleeping very well. I am seeing that you are scrambling around like crazy, and I get it. I get that you’re trying to save the business, I get that you’re trying to save jobs. And I’m not even saying to you, “Stop.” I am not suggesting that you stop.

But, what I am suggesting is that I want you to recognize that, in your busyness, who you’re not taking care of is you. If anybody has to survive this, it’s the captain of the ship. And so, I think the way we survive this is first by acknowledging that we’re angry, that we have suffered a loss, that we are frustrated that we’re scared. So first, I want you to just … I am not a woo-woo sort of person, you guys know me well enough to know that that’s not my style. But, I do hope that I’m a sensitive person, and I’m a person that acknowledges that our feelings matter. I want you just to acknowledge the loss. I want you to sit and feel that you’re angry, and frustrated, and sad because things aren’t the way you expected them to, that you want them to be, that you’ve worked so hard for them to be. And, to have something completely out of your control take that away from you hurts and is worthy of being angry and frustrated about.

And, the fact that it’s so unknown to all of us, most of us have never been through anything like this. So yes, it is very much like 9/11, and yes it is very much like the Great Recession. Or honestly, it’s like when your gorilla client goes away. We’re facing the same business realities that we faced then. But, I think the health part of this, the isolation of having to work from home makes it all harder and worse. So first, I just want you to recognize that you’re going through something that’s really hard and really heavy. And, just give yourself a little bit of grace that you are doing the best you can. And yes, you’re going to get to the calm waters, and yes you will survive this but that doesn’t make the getting there, the journey, any more fun.

First and foremost, I want you to acknowledge that you have a loss, and to give yourself time and space to process that. For some of you, that might be journaling. For other people, it might be talking to other agency owners, or friends, or your spouse. But, to just not brush it aside with busyness, and even if its worthy busyness. Again, I’m not saying you’re doing busy work just to do busy work, I know you’re doing important things. But, somewhere in the midst of those important things should be pausing, and accepting and acknowledging what this all means to you.

Once you’ve done that, then I think, hopefully, what you will recognize is that the ship is not a self-driving ship. It needs an alert, and active and engaged captain. And, for all of you what that means is that you have to stay healthy. I’m not just talking about self-isolating, or social distancing and not getting the virus. Obviously, I’m suggesting you avoid that as well. But, what I’m talking about is staying healthy holistically. I know a lot of you are struggling to get good sleep. You’re tossing and you’re turning, and you’re worrying. I know a lot of you, it’s pretty easy to go right to self-medicating, and for some of you that might be wine, or a great single malt scotch. For others, it’s food.

But in all of this, we have to really think about how we’re staying at our tip-top ship shape condition to survive this, because this is a marathon guys. Even if the countries that are going through this right now are following the Asian pattern, it’s a couple months before things start to come back. Remember, that in Asia, we heard Kiri talk about it in last week’s episode, in Asia they pretty much, as soon as they heard the virus was coming or was there, they shut down. They voluntarily shut down because they had been through SARS before, and everybody immediately went to work from home, and social distancing, and wearing masks and all of that, which we have not seen in some of the other countries. We certainly are not seeing it here in the States, we’re seeing a much more mixed reaction to the virus’ arrival on our shores.

Best case scenario, it’s a couple months. Kiri told us, end of January, right after Chinese New Year, was when it really struck for them. And, by mid to end March, they were back at it, they were back in their office, the restaurants had opened again, they were having face-to-face meetings with clients and with each other. So, let’s call it two months. I am, again, not a scientist, not a doctor, but I am a bit of a psychology buff and human nature buff. We here in the States did not follow the everybody shut down and stay home right off the bat. In fact, as of today there are still people who are … I just saw a story today of a mega church in Florida that just had services today, still in their building. Even today, as of the end of March, we still have people gathering in large numbers, in some isolated incidents.

My point in that is this. This is a two or three month deal for us, and that’s a long time to work differently than we’ve worked our entire lives. It’s a long time to deal with clients who are afraid. It is a long time to put on a calm, and confident, and compassionate face for our employees, to help them stay motivated, to keep serving our clients and keep doing the work we need to do. That’s a lot on our shoulders. I have no doubt that you can do it, I have no doubt that you can do it well. You were born to lead your people through something like this. You’ve got this, that’s not the part that worries me. The part that worries me is what toll it’s going to take on you to get to the calm waters with your team. So that’s why I am saying to you, you’ve got to figure out what it’s going to take for you to stay safe and sane, and healthy through all of this.

What I’m asking you to think about, and what I’m asking you to actively plan is that. What is your safe, sane and healthy plan? I know all of you, I know all of you are to-do list people, I know all of you are super Type A, and what I’m asking you to do is to make sure that on every day’s to-do list, there is something about you. There is something about replenishing yourself, there is something about refilling the bucket of energy, of emotional connection, of whatever it is you need to get through this, I want you to actively do something, every single day. I’m talking seven days a week, not five days a week. I am talking about you making sure that you are steady and strong through this whole thing.

That might mean that you give yourself permission to grab an afternoon nap for 20 minutes. You’re home anyway. It’s hard to nap at the office, although I know some of you have couches in your office and have found a way to do that. It might be that you are outside for at least an hour a day, on your phone maybe, but also walking the dog. Or, just out on a walk. Or some of you, I know, live on golf courses, so walk the course. It might be, for some of you, that you’re meditating or doing yoga. For others, it might be listening to inspirational TED Talks. Or, many of the churches are streaming their services.

For a lot of you, it may be making sure that you are spending time with the people that you love, either in your own home, game night, or binge watching something on TV in the evening. And for others of you, it might be every single day, calling a different person and getting on a Zoom call or a phone call, and just connecting with them. On a personal level, not on a business level. But as human beings, these are your friends, these are your family, these are your employees or your coworkers, or your peers. But, human connection and that can take on many forms. I think one of the hardest parts of all of this is the isolation, is the fact that we cannot come together as a community, as peers, to commiserate, and to laugh, and to strategize. So, find ways to make that happen.

I know many of my peer groups that I lead are hosting virtual happy hours, and everyone is grabbing a drink of something and they are all on Zoom together. I can’t tell you the energy that comes from those Zoom calls, and how much better people feel after being together for 45 minutes or an hour. Yes, talking about business but also joking, and talking about life, and telling stories because that’s what we’re wired to do. So that’s good medicine for you, too.

Certainly, being mindful of getting enough sleep. I think one of the most important things that I’ve read about how we can physically stay healthy and avoid the virus is to get enough sleep. But for many of you, you don’t get enough sleep as a general rule so maybe now is the time to try and get a little more sleep, a little more rest. Maybe get up a little later, go to bed a little earlier, whatever that looks like for you. But, you’ve really absolutely got to take of yourself in every aspect.

I will tell you that when you’re grieving, and it probably doesn’t feel like active grieving for you because you’re so busy, you haven’t noticed it in that way. But, I will tell you that when you’re grieving, all of those things become more acute needs. You need other people more than you ever did before, you need sleep more than you ever did before. You need to eat healthy food, and feed your body, and fuel your body, and you need to move. You need to walk, or have a dance party in your living room, or whatever it is that allows your body to feel energized. Again, for each of you it’s going to be very different. It might be reading a book about a philosophy, or of uplifting stories. For others, it might be prayer, it might be meditation. But, taking care of your mind and your heart as well. Because honestly, yes your body is the vessel but it’s your mind and heart that’s going to get you through this. Do not neglect their care through all of this.

I know that most of my podcasts, and certainly my solo casts, I’m hardcore teaching you something. And I am giving you actionable activity, and it’s all about the business. So I acknowledge that this is a deviation for me, and I acknowledge that this is unusually personal in some ways, and also that I’m not talking about your agency and the business of your agency in the way that I normally do. But, these are very unusual times and we are facing a challenge unlike one that we have ever faced before. And after this many episodes, I feel like I hope that you know me well enough to know, and I hope that we know each other well enough to know that it’s okay for me to deviate from the norm, and to get personal. And, to genuinely tell you that I’m worried about you.

I am concerned for you because I know how hard this is. I know what some of you are grieving, and I know what just walked out the door with the fifth phone call of a client saying, “I’m really sorry, but we can’t, we have to stop,” whatever it is. I know you’re worried about your people, and I know the weight that is on your shoulders. And, I know that it’s very difficult for you to be at your best and to run the agency the way you want to run the business when you have that much on your shoulders. Every day, you guys carry a lot on your shoulders, I get it. But boy, is the burden heavy right now. So I just want to remind you that now is the time for you to take care of yourself.

I also want to remind you that it’s okay … I’ve talked to several people in the last couple weeks and they will embarrassedly admit that there are parts of this that they’re actually enjoying. They’re enjoying the fact that we have had to slow down. They’re enjoying the fact that they’re at home more. They’re enjoying seeing other people’s kids and dogs, and all of that, in the back of the Zoom video. They’re enjoying the shift of the pace, even despite their fear a