Episode 346

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Women own less than 1% of the ad agencies in North America. This gender gap is disappointing and staggering, but in this episode of Build a Better Agency, our guest expert Christy Hiler reminds us that bridging that gap is far from impossible.

During our conversation, Christy helps us unravel this alarming statistic by exploring the barriers that may be keeping the women we lead and work with from pursuing ownership roles or viewing ownership, not just leadership, as an end goal in the first place. In addition to discussing the things that may be holding women back, Christy and I also discuss the progress from encouraging, elevating, and celebrating women-owned agencies, and what we can do as agency owners to help empower more women within our networks to pursue ownership roles.

This topic is near and dear to me as both an agency owner and someone who has the privilege of working alongside the women-led agencies represented in AMI. My hope is that you will not only enjoy this conversation with Christy, but that you will link arms with her and leaders like her so that we can all work together to tackle problems like this in our industry.

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:

  • What the “Own It” initiative is, and what inspired Christy to launch it
  • Why women own less than 1% of all ad agencies in North America
  • The barriers that may be preventing women in the industry from becoming agency owners
  • Why inviting and empowering women in these spaces is a benefit for everyone
  • How women-led agencies are doing things differently — and why that’s so great
  • What current agency owners can do to mentor, encourage, and empower the women they work with to seek ownership opportunities
  • How you can help Christy identify, support, and celebrate women-led agencies in the industry
“You don’t really have the power until you own it. You can make decisions as a leader, but ultimately, the freedom is in the hands of the owner.” @chiler Share on X “If you are leading the vision, driving the direction and the team and business, then you should also be rewarded.” @chiler Share on X “In addition to lifting up the agencies through this list of women-owned businesses, I also really want to celebrate all of the other owners.” @chiler Share on X “I truly believe that if you can see her, it is so much easier to be her. Listening to other women’s journeys, challenges, and joys of ownership is critical for overcoming any doubt around becoming an owner.” @chiler Share on X “What’s really cool about this community is everyone has said, ‘What can I do?’ They’re ready. They want to do whatever it takes to see more women come into positions as owners, and they’re ready to help reach back and pull them forward.” @chiler Share on X

Ways to contact Christy:

Resources:

Speaker 1:

It doesn’t matter what kind of an agency you run, traditional, digital, media buying, WebDev, 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 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 McClellan.

Drew McLellan:

Hey, everybody Drew McClellan here from Agency Management Institute. I know it’s not going to be a surprise to you, but I’m here because I have another episode of the podcast, Build A Better Agency for you. And will tell you that I think this topic is a really important one. I’m excited that we’re going to talk about it, I’m super excited to introduce you to my guest. And what I would love for us to do as a community is to really link arms around this challenge that we’re going to talk about today and get some movement on it because it matters. It matters to me personally. It matters to all of you personally. And so I think we can make some change. And I’m excited about being part of that. But before I do that, I want to remind you, we’ve got some great workshops coming up this summer.

We have the AE Bootcamp, that’s for professionals who’ve been in the business four years or less. Junior AEs, project managers, account coordinators, that sort of role. Now, that’s going to happen the first week in August. We have the Advanced AE Bootcamp in June, mid-June that’s for people who have more four, five years or more experience. And if you have 25 years of experience, we still have things to teach you. And so we would love to have you join us. But the workshop I really want to talk about today is the Sell With Strategic Insights. That’s in July. I think it’s the 18th and 19th, also in Chicago.

All three of these are in Chicago. But the Sell With Strategic Insights is a workshop we have taught, I would say three or four times. It is taught by the amazing folks at Mercer Island Group. Rob and Steve and Lindsay will be with us again, and what they’re going to be doing from their position, their vantage point of being a search firm that sees hundreds of agencies pitch and sees why agencies win and lose because they’re in the room when the client decides who they’re going to hire.

They’ve put together this entire workshop, which teaches us how to have a framework, and to not only build a smart strategy to take into the pitch with prospects or existing clients. This is a great thing to do at contract renewal timer, things like that, but to build… So they’ve got this framework because everyone goes, “I can be a strategic thinker, but I don’t know how to teach it, or I don’t know how to bring everybody else into it.”

They’ve built a framework that will allow you to go back to the shop, to teach it to your team, to lead your team through it whether it’s for a BizDev opportunity or an existing client that you’re trying to save. And at the end of the day you come out with not only this amazing insight of where the client should go and why, but you have a story to tell through your presentation and what Rob and Steve and Lindsay will tell you is this is what’s lacking in most agencies proposals.

We go right to the tactical stuff or right to the stuff about us, but we don’t help the client understand the thinking underneath what we’re recommending. And I will tell you that we’ve probably had about, I don’t know, 75 or so agencies who have gone through this workshop. And we are at over $80 million of AGI wins from agencies that have reported back to me. So I’m sure there’s more than this I just don’t know about it, but have reported back to me, the win that they got after they deployed what they learned at this workshop. So this workshop is spectacular. It will help you and your entire team be more strategic, think bigger, think better. And it is a great way for you to build strategic thinking inside your agency for all kinds of things. It’s not just about the big pitch or the big renewal, but you can use this in all kinds of scenarios.

Again, head over to the AMI website, agencymanagementinstitute.com under the, how we help you’ll find the workshop section and you can register for Sell With Strategic Insights in July, I highly recommend it. All right. So let me tell you about the topic that we’re going to talk about today and my guest. I am very fortunate that I get to work with hundreds and hundreds of agency owners from all over the world. And I will tell you that in my world, the gender split, men and women is pretty even, but in the bigger world of advertising agencies, outside of AMI, that gender split is not equitable. In fact, it’s really inequitable. Most of the agency owners out in the world are men and a lot of women have never pursued it or thought they couldn’t do it. And my guest today is here to change that.

Is to say, you know what? We need to ask, we need to invite more women into thinking about, do they want to own an agency? And what could that mean for them and their family? And how do we dispel some of the myths or the things that get in the way, the boundaries to keep them from thinking about this as a viable option? Christy Hiler bought her own agency about a year and a half ago. She inside the agency as the president. When they first asked her if she wanted to buy it, she said, “Absolutely not.” And then had sort of a reawakening in terms of her thinking about it. But as a brand new owner of an agency, she wanted to connect with other women owners and started sculpting around to figure out where those women hung out and how many there were.

And she was appalled to find out the statistical data as best we can have it that, women are very underrepresented when it comes to ownership. Again, not so much in my world, but in the agency world at large. And so she decided she wanted to do something about it. What we’re going to talk about today is, what is the problem? Why is it a problem? How can we solve the problem together? And what caused the problem in the first place? What are the barriers? And how can we start moving those aside so that more and more women, not only want to be a leader inside an agency, but look at an agency and say, “I could own this, or I could own something like this,” and then pursue that dream. It’s going to be a great conversation.

I’m excited about it, as a father of a daughter. And honestly, I don’t think you have to have a daughter or you should have to have a daughter to care about this, we should all care about equity, but this is personal to me. I don’t want anything to get in the way of my daughter’s success. And everybody out there has a mom and a dad or spouse or sibling who feels the same way. And in fairness, and in honesty, we’re better as an industry with more diversity. And so one of the places we are not as diverse as we need to be is in female ownership. Let’s jump into the conversation with Christy and let’s talk about how we can change that.

All right, Christy, thanks for coming on the show. This is a topic that is near and dear to me. So I’m excited that we’re going to talk about it.

Christy Hiler:

Thanks for having me.

Drew McLellan:

Tell everybody how you got to be a spokesperson, if you will, how this became a passion for you to talk about with other people.

Christy Hiler:

Sure. Shortly after I purchased Cornett, which was about a year and a half ago now, I was applying for the WBENC certification to be a certified womened owned business. And that process is pretty cumbersome.

Drew McLellan:

I was going to say it’s onerous. Yeah.

Christy Hiler:

Yes, yes. And through that process, I started asking… Well, just, it kind of occurred to me, how many other women owned agencies are there? And it was a question that I posed and I thought I would get a pretty easy and quick response. And it turned out to be very difficult to get an answer to that.

Drew McLellan:

To find out how many women based or agency owners there were.

Christy Hiler:

Yeah. And so I had asked WBENC and that was hard because of course not everybody goes through that process, there’s a cost associated with it. And it’s also specific to agencies that are over. You have to prove that you own 51% or more in order to be certified. It’s really not inclusive either of agencies. And there are a number of agencies that are on our list now are 50/50 owners, or… And when I first started this, it was something that I considered greatly, should it be specifically only agencies that are over 51%, but I read something that made me rethink that. And it was actually Valerie Moizel. She has an agency, The Woo. And a separate part of her agency, she has this initiative called She Dynasty and this podcast. And she talks to incredible women in all different fields, but she noted that at one point she didn’t have the majority of the agency and she felt like she had was being marginalized anytime anybody spoke to her about having less than 51%.

And that really stuck with me.

Drew McLellan:

Interesting. Right.

Christy Hiler:

Because I didn’t want to do that either. I didn’t want to not recognize the great feet of owning any percentage. What we are doing through Cornett, when you recognize that you are a women owned agency, we will recognize you at whatever percentage. Now we are collecting data so that we can sort it and we can understand how many agencies are less than 50%, greater than 50%. And we are also capturing the data to understand each owner, what percentage do they own? We can sort that on the back end, but that’s not public facing. Any agency that has any female ownership is being recognized. But going back to your question, it became really difficult. They couldn’t answer it. And then I went to 4A’s and I had asked them if they had a good list.

And I knew that theirs would be tough because they have a membership. But I asked, “Do you know even outside of your membership?” And they did, they gave me probably the best list. But it wasn’t even, and they admitted from the very beginning, don’t use this for statistical purposes, but you can use it directionally. And I did look up almost all of the agencies on there to see are they in business? And they weren’t. So I knew it wasn’t a current or complete or clean list. Then I went to Ad Age and DataCenter and SBA, I tried very hard to find a good list and I just couldn’t. But the best source I find showed that of the 20,000 agencies, less than 200 is what I could get my hands on. Which is so less than 200 of the 20,000 are owned by women.

And that was not something that I could just sit with and go, “Okay, well, thanks for that.” Especially if you compare it to general business, so just in general in the U.S, 40% of businesses are owned by women. It just was so disappointing for me to look at that percentage versus over 99% of agencies are owned by men. And so then the conversation in my head was “Okay, one, we just, we got to talk about this issue. It’s not going to change unless you talk about it. Everything you get intentional about, you really do have the ability to change.” And so there was that, and I started thinking, okay, well, how do we change that? There has been tremendous success and I would say progress since we started having the conversation about getting women into positions of leadership.

And there are a lot of organizations within this business that are having those conversations and really pushing that as an issue. And it is allowing us to see progress. Now we have more women in positions of leadership because of things like the 3% movement and SeeHer and Have Her Back. And there are many great organizations and communities and initiatives. I just thought, maybe it’s as easy as going back to some of those organizations and saying, “Hey, what if we don’t look at the end goal as leadership? What if we stop saying leadership? Let’s all work towards leader. What if we’re working towards ownership? What if we just kick that bar up one more notch? Could it be that simple if we just change the conversation slightly and we make that the end goal? And we talk about why?” Because is you don’t really have the power until you own it.

Drew McLellan:

Right.

Christy Hiler:

Right. You can make decisions as a leader, but ultimately the power is in the hands of the owner.

Drew McLellan:

And so is the revenue, and so is the earnings, and-

Christy Hiler:

Exactly.

Drew McLellan:

… it’s not just the power, it’s actually-

Christy Hiler:

It’s the wealth.

Drew McLellan:

… the wealth, but also the freedom, right?

Christy Hiler:

Yes.

Drew McLellan:

As owners, you get to work, your life gets to be in the center and work gets to go around your life. And it’s much harder to do that when you don’t own the joint. And as you and I were talking about before we hit the record button, the good news is, I’m going to be able to put a lot on new names on your list because in the AMI world, I would say conservatively 40 or 50% of the agency owners we interact with every day are women. And so between the podcast and our newsletter and me just telling all the women that I get to work with about you, hopefully we’ll really flood your list.

Christy Hiler:

Thank you. Thank you. Yeah. Okay. So the list piece of it. In addition to just saying, “Let’s make ownership the end goal.” And I do want to go back to kind of why too in that, and what you just hit on too. It is both as an owner, you’re taking on the risk and the weight of the decisions. For me, when I stepped into the role of ownership, I had already been serving as president of the agency for four years prior.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. But it’s different, isn’t it?

Christy Hiler:

It is. It is different.

Drew McLellan:

It’s like when someone tells you before you have your first baby, “It changes everything,” and you go, “It’s not going to be that big of a deal.” And then that you bring the baby home and you’re like, “Oh my God, this changes everything.” Ownership is the same way. We do a lot of succession work where we help agency owners do exactly what you did, transition ownership to an existing employee who wants to buy the agency, and male or female. And no matter what a great leader they are inside the organization, they think they’re ready for ownership, but it takes us a good year or so to coach them to really be ready. And even then, we can only prepare them so much. But it is still that holy buckets moment of, “This is mine now. And this could die if I do it wrong.” And so the weight and the pressure of it is very different. Absolutely, you’re right.

Christy Hiler:

It is. And you feel it, that was… And I would say immediately, you feel it.

Drew McLellan:

Oh gosh. Yeah.

Christy Hiler:

You feel like, okay, now the responsibility of these 50 people and their families and their livelihood is now ultimately on me. And I think it’s important when you’re making decisions about the agency that you feel that way actually.

Drew McLellan:

Absolutely. I think the minute you get cavalier about that, you have a problem.

Christy Hiler:

Yes.

Drew McLellan:

Because then it’s just… It does need to be about the numbers. And the listeners of this podcast have heard me rail on about how we have to run our business based on the numbers and the financial metrics that are unique to our business, but that’s the hard part. There always has to be the hard part.

Christy Hiler:

Yeah. And then there’s the other side of that which is, if you are leading the vision and you’re driving the direction and this team and that business, you should also be able to be rewarded for that.

Drew McLellan:

Absolutely.

Christy Hiler:

And I mean, financially too, and I want to see that transfer of wealth too. I want to see more equity on the wealth side. Okay. So going back to the list. Yes, we can have the conversation and we can talk about that, but that doesn’t solve for still not having an accurate number. So the first step of own it, and really what I want to be able to do is have a current and accurate number and count of how many the women owned agencies are there in this business. I’ve got a fantastic web team here at the agency. And so I turned to them and said, “Hey, can you build a really simple site and form that will allow us to capture that data?” All women have to do is just raise their hand, just stand up and be recognized.

Drew McLellan:

For the listeners, because obviously, hopefully a good chunk of them are women or agency owners, male agency owners that either have partners that are women or no other agency owners that are women, getting on the list of is what for me, besides being counted?

Christy Hiler:

A couple of things. That also can be a great resource for community is what I have found. That list, it is public too. You’ll go in there and it’s, I want to say, maybe 20 fields. It’s super quick, easy, painless. Fill out that, but then automatically your agency name, hyperlink to your website and then the location and the owners names. That is what is published. Not all of the information that you give is published the percentage of your ownership that is not published, but the agency.

And again, my hope is also in the future, at probably a later stage, I don’t know how quickly we’re going to see this happen, but I also want to celebrate these agencies.

Drew McLellan:

Absolutely.

Christy Hiler:

And start giving it as a resource for brands who want to connect with female owned agencies.

Drew McLellan:

Great.

Christy Hiler:

And people who want to work for female owned agencies, and even trade, and association or news publication that want to have a list. And it’s going to be a resource and you want to be on that resource, I think. But I think the other, and one important piece and kind of like what you and I were talking about before we hopped on here is, the community. And it is forming quickly and it is proving to be really needed. And that was a piece that I would say was unexpected. It wasn’t as planned.

There’s two parts of the site. There’s the list of agencies. And then there’s also the podcast which I started. And I started that because as I was building the site, I wanted to get some feedback from some other owners. And so I started sharing the idea and the site and saying, “What do you think about this? Any information I’m missing? Or any part of this that I could improve?” And I started having these fantastic conversations in getting to know these other owner and hearing their-

Drew McLellan:

They’re spectacular.

Christy Hiler:

… stories. It was.

Drew McLellan:

Yep.

Christy Hiler:

It was so fantastic. And-

Drew McLellan:

That’s the best part of my job, for sure.

Christy Hiler:

Yeah. And so then I thought, in addition to lifting up the agencies through this list, I also really want to celebrate these other owners. And I think that I really believe that if you can see her, it’s so much easier to be her. And so I never thought I would have a podcast, but I started that. And really it’s just like this, it’s just really comfortable conversations and allowing them to share their journey and also the challenges in the beginning or the challenges now, but also the joys of ownership so that people can start to see themselves in it and go, “Oh, I can do that too,” because that’s an important piece for a couple of reasons.

I think that part of what I hope to at some point be able to really dig into is what is holding women back? Why is this number so low in our business? And looking at just research. I don’t know that funding isn’t a piece of it. Being able to financially secure the funding. But I think the bigger piece in there is research to back this up that a lot of it is just doubt, just internal.

Drew McLellan:

In our succession work. We don’t see the funding issue different by gender. I mean, SBA will give anybody money, if you qualify. In fact, I think they might even have programs specifically to help-

Christy Hiler:

They do.

Drew McLellan:

… women and minorities and things like that. I want to talk more about the barriers. Two things, then we’re going to take a quick break. Number one, you really, really should come to our conference in May. If you want to meet 150 of the coolest, best to agency owners, you should come to the Build A Better Agency Summit, because they’ll be there.

Christy Hiler:

Okay.

Drew McLellan:

And two, we do have to take a break, but when we come back, what I want to talk about is what can we as a community of agency owners do to make it easier for women to see themselves in an ownership position and what can we, whether we are female or male do with our employees who have the potential to be owners to encourage and lift them up, to get them to think that way.

Christy Hiler:

Great questions.

Drew McLellan:

I’m going to put the pin there. Let’s take a quick break and then we will come back and dig into those topics. Hey everybody, I promise I will not keep you more than a minute, but I want to make sure you know that at AMI, one of the things that we offer are virtual peer groups. Think of it as a Vistage group or an EO group, only everybody around the table, figuratively in this case, is an agency owner. So you have to be an agency owner to belong. The virtual peer groups meet every month for 90 minutes on Zoom. This was not of COVID creation, it was pre COVID. You see the same people in your cohort every time, so you get to create relationships with them. And it is facilitated by a AMI staffer, Craig Barnes, who has owned his own agency for 25 or 30 years.

Plenty of great experience, both from Craig, but also learning from each other. If you have any interest in learnin