Episode 395

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This week, I’m covering an important topic I haven’t covered on a solocast before — agency owner work balance. Often, agency owners get pulled into too much of the day-to-day client work or aren’t correctly staffing the agency to get the support they need on the work they have.

There’s a formula you should be following for how you break down your workday or workweek to be a successful business leader, and I’m going to map it out in an easily applicable formula. It’s not always easy to get ourselves out of the daily client tasks, but the recipe I’m sharing with you today will help you block out more time for the things that matter the most.

If you’re not doing your job, nobody else is going to do it, either. And your job is the most important job in the entire agency. So tune in to learn how to map out your days better, get out of the day-to-day, and focus your attention where you’re needed most.

For 30+ years, Drew McLellan has been in the advertising industry. He started his career at Y&R, worked in boutique-sized agencies, and then started his own (which he still owns and runs) agency in 1995. Additionally, Drew owns and leads the Agency Management Institute, which advises hundreds of small to mid-sized agencies on how to grow their agency and its profitability through agency owner peer groups, consulting, coaching, workshops and more.

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:

  • Getting out of the day-to-day client work
  • The percentage breakdown of how an agency owner should spend their day
  • Why blocking your time efficiently and effectively is incredibly important
  • The key factors that add value to your agency
  • How to shift to this new breakdown of work
  • Why biz dev is the most important task
  • How to delegate and divide tasks between you and your business partner
  • The importance of making yourself unavailable sometimes

“If you don't track your time, it's really hard to know how and where you are investing your energy.” @DrewMcLellan Click To Tweet
“It is really, really hard to grow an agency without someone spending a lot of time on BizDev, client love, and growing the team.” @DrewMcLellan Click To Tweet
“If you're taking all of the big projects, you’re letting your people walk behind you and clean up the messes or do the tasks. They're not growing, they're not learning, they're not being stretched, they're not being challenged.” @DrewMcLellan Click To Tweet
“You should not be billable. You should not be serving clients more than 5% of your time. So you may have to rethink about staffing, you may have to think about hiring someone, whatever it may be.” @DrewMcLellan Click To Tweet
“The other thing that I love about you managing your day is you are setting an incredible example for your team and helping them learn how to manage their calendar.” @DrewMcLellan Click To Tweet

Ways to contact Drew:



Welcome to the Agency Management Institute community, where you’ll learn how to grow and scale your business, attract and retain the best talent, make more money, and keep more of what you make. The Build a Better Agency Podcast, presented by White Label IQ, is packed with insights on how small to mid-size agencies survive and thrive in today’s market, 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, with another episode of Build a Better Agency. This week is one of my solo casts, so no guests this week, just you and me hanging out, talking about something that I think is important. And I have to tell you, when I was thinking about what I wanted to talk about, we’re coming off of a series of peer group meetings. So where we come together with agency owners, kind of like a mastermind or a Vistage group, only everybody around the table owns an agency from somewhere in the land.

And one of the, we ask certain questions every meeting that they have to present their information on. And so when I was thinking about what I wanted to talk to you about today, it occurred to me that one of the most important things that we talk about in these peer groups is something I have not done a solo cast on. So I want to correct that mistake and make sure we talk about this important topic. But before we do that, a couple of quick things, a couple little housekeeping things.

I want to give you a heads-up about two great workshops that we have coming up in July. Both of them are here in Denver. So we are partnering with Carla Johnson on July 11th and 12th, for a workshop called Rethink Innovation. So Carla is a brilliant, brilliant marketer, author, speaker who was fascinated with the idea that as kids we’re super innovative, give us a cardboard box and a wooden spoon, and we can turn it into a circus train or a truck or a house or whatever we want to. But over time, as adults, our ability to innovate on demand, starts to diminish. And it’s a series of reasons why, and Carla goes into some of the reasons why that happens to us.

But, by the time we’re adults, we are really using a fraction of our ability to be innovative. And so Carla studied sort of what makes someone innovative, and is there a methodology or a framework? Because you know what? It’s not just our business, but it’s certainly our business. But very few organizations in the world today don’t want their employees to be innovative. And it can’t just be one or two. For many of you in your agency, it’s you, you are the one that is the big strategic thinker, you’re the one that comes up with the new ideas, but everybody is waiting on you to do that.

And so oftentimes you’re a bottleneck to work getting done, and big ideas being presented to clients because you can’t be everywhere for everybody. So Carla studied how and why we are innovative and what gets in the way of that over time. And then how do we break that cycle? How do we reinvigorate our ability to be innovative so that everyone in your organization, from an intern to the CFO, to the creative director and everybody in between, can be innovative and can come up with great ideas that change the trajectory both of your client’s business, and also be innovative on behalf of the agency itself.

So anyway, she discovered some really fascinating things about what triggers innovative thinking, and she built a framework that you can sort of put yourself into any time that you need to come up with big ideas, to sort of invigorate your ability to think bigger and fresher, and in a more original way. And now has built a workshop for us that teaches that framework. So we taught this workshop, not February of ’23, but February of 2022, and people loved it. They raved about it, they took it back to their agency, they taught the framework to their folks. It’s now part of their regular process, and so we wanted to offer it again.

So the workshop is July 11th and 12th in Denver. You can register for it on the AMI website, just go to how we help, and then if you pull down, you’ll get to workshops and you’ll see it there. We would love to have you join us. It’s a Tuesday, Wednesday. July is a beautiful time to be in Denver. So if you are inclined to enjoy hiking or biking or the mountains, it’s a great time to come see us, and learn this framework that you can take back and show your folks. As always, there’s a discount if you want to bring more than one person. If you want to bring a team to learn how to do it, to bring it back to your shop, you are more than welcome to do that.

Then a couple of weeks later, on July 24th and 25th, we have a Mercer Island Group coming back to teach a workshop that we have taught for, I think four or five years. It’s called Sell With Strategic Insights. It is brilliant. So Mercer Island Group, if you’re not familiar with them, is an agency search firm. So they see hundreds of agencies pitch every year, as they help brands select the right agency. They also do a lot of consulting work with agency owners, but one of the things they’ve noticed is in the pitches, a lot of agencies, either aren’t talking about the strategy behind the creative or the media plan, or whatever they’re presenting, or they just aren’t explaining how it all comes together.

They don’t tell the story in a way that the prospect can sort of see how the agency put the pieces together. And again, much like we were talking about with innovation, many agencies find that strategic thinking, that coming up with the big aha insight for a prospect or a client, what they teach is equally useful with your own clients. Most people think about it as a Bizdev tool, but you certainly can use it with your own clients. But in most agencies, there’s a handful of you that come up with that big aha idea.

And so Mercer Island Group has built a framework of how you go from getting an RFI, an RFP or a request for a proposal, whatever it may be, and moving through a system, a systemized way of thinking about the prospect’s business, to come up with some strategic insights that really position you as an agency, that thinks bigger and better and comes back to the prospect, with insights that they didn’t have, that they are too close to the business to see. I think we’ve taught this workshop maybe five times. So we’ve probably had, I don’t know, I’m going to say 150 or 200 agencies go through the workshop.

We are at over $100 million of new AGI from people who have attended the workshop and applied the methodology they learned there. So this is absolutely a game changer. Many agencies have landed their largest client in their agency’s history. Some of these agencies were 25 and 30 years old, after going to the workshop and after starting to use what they learned in the workshop. So again, two amazing workshops to help you and your team think bigger, and to bring bigger, better ideas to clients, and for the agency itself. July 11th and 12th with Carla Johnson, Rethink Innovation, and July 24th and 25th with Mercer Island Group, Sell With Strategic Insights.

Okay. With that said, let’s talk about today’s topic. So whether you have run your agency for six months or six years or 20 years, my guess is that you as the agency owner are not spending your day in the ideal way. And I say that because in these peer groups that we have, everybody has to report how they spend their day, against the grid that I’m going to give you, against the sort of percentages of how I want you to spend your day. And very few agency owners are really at that point, even if they’ve been around for a long time.

There are a couple of things, there are a couple of caveats to this. Number one, if you’re not tracking your time every day, you have no idea how you’re spending your week, or your days. You think you do, but you actually do not. So again, I’m going to advocate for everyone in the organization, including you, to track your time. It’s fascinating, and you don’t have to do this in a high-tech way. Yes, you can use the software your team uses, but you can also just keep a notepad next to you and sort of record things, or be really diligent about editing your calendar to actually reflect how you spent your day, not how you intended to spend your day.

But if you don’t track your time, it’s really hard to know how and where you are investing your energy. So that’s number one. Number two, it’s so easy to get sucked into the day-to-day to put out fires, to be involved with client work. Many of you are still super involved in the day-to-day client work, whether that’s account service, or it’s creative or digital, whatever your background is. And the reality is, as the agency owner, you need to step away from that work. You can’t scale and grow the business if you are not doing your job.

So what I want to talk about today is, how you should spend your day, why it matters, and how you can shift from what you’re doing today to the ideal. Let me first tell you that as an agency owner, you have a very important job, and if you don’t do your job, most of your job cannot be done by anyone else. A lot of the things you’re doing today can be done by someone else and should be done by someone else, but the agency owner’s job is very unique to them. And we’ll talk about some variations to that theme, but for the most part, what I’m about to tell you is how agency owners should spend their day.

So I’m going to run you through the percentages, and then we’ll go back and talk about each percentage with some details. So 50% of your time should be spent on Bizdev. We’ll define that in a minute. About 15% of your time should be managing the agency. So that’s administrative tasks, looking at the financial reports, things like that. 20% of the time should be spent mentoring and inspiring your team. So that’s doing one-on-ones with your direct reports, but it’s also thinking about mission, vision, values. It’s about leading the all team meetings and getting everybody fired up.

So it is mentoring and inspiring your team. About 5% of your time should be spent on what we call client love, and I’ll define that for you. And then about 5% should be spent on client work or putting out client fires. So again, let me repeat that. 50% Bizdev, 15% managing the agency, all the administrative stuff of owning the business, 20% mentoring and inspiring the team, 5% client love and 5% client work, or putting out client fires. All right, let’s look at what each of those means and some of the activity that falls into them. And then after we do that, we’ll talk about why this is so important.

All right, so let’s talk about Bizdev first. So 50% of your time should be spent on Bizdev, but that’s a wide swath of activity. And what I mean by that is, that’s everything from producing thought leadership content that demonstrates yours, and the agency’s expertise in whatever niche you’ve decided or creating content. It’s basically output marketing output of some kind. For you, it might be a email sequence, it might be going to a trade show and speaking at a trade show, or walking the trade show floor of the niche that you serve. It might be writing an ebook or working on a piece of research or things like that. It’s also thinking about who should we be targeting in terms of our new business?

And putting together that list and doing the research or overseeing the research, to learn enough about these businesses so you can have intelligent conversations with them. It is responding to knocks on the door, RFPs, requests for proposals, those sorts of things, deciding which ones you should pursue and then pursuing them. It is picking up the phone and calling past clients to touch base with them, to continue to cultivate that relationship with a hope that they may invite you back to serve them again when they’re in a new role, in a new job, whatever it may be.

Or even at the old place that for whatever reason you’re not doing work with anymore. It is about networking. It’s about going to events where you know your right-fit clients hang out. It is time spent commenting on the social media of prospects, or writing LinkedIn articles, or fill in the blank. You understand what I’m saying, Bizdev is a wide range of things, but half of your time, 20 hours a week should be spent there at least, and that’s assuming you’re only working a 40-hour week.

15% managing the agency. That’s looking at the monthly finances, that’s any administrative tasks, that’s reviewing insurance policies with whoever’s handling that for you. That is looking at the lease renewal, if you’re renting a building. It’s all the things of just sort of managing the business. It’s getting ready for taxes, all of that sort of thing. About 15% of your time should be spent there. 20% of your time should be spent mentoring and inspiring the team, and that is oftentimes a mix of one-to-one activity and one-to-many activity. The one-to-one activity is really doing those one-on-one meetings with your direct reports.

So every couple of weeks you’re meeting with them for 20 or 30 minutes. They own that meeting. If you’re not familiar with the one-to-one model, episode 15 outlines that for you, it gives you a form. It is transformative for agencies that start to do this, the one-to-one meetings. They really are the complete game changer, in terms of how plugged in you are to the business, how your people aspire to grow and put growth goals together and actually work those growth goals. They really are remarkable, and they’re well worth the time.

On the one-to-many side, it is you thinking about the long-term vision of the agency and sharing that, that is about you having clear mission, vision values for the agency, and articulating those and sharing those, and participating in peer recognition programs that applaud your people for living by the values of the business. It is leading the all team meetings and get everybody psyched up about where the agency is going. So it’s those sort of activities. 20% of your time should be spent there. 5% of your time should be spent on client love. And what we mean by that is, you having a relationship and connection with somebody in your client organization, as high up as you can go.

So business owner or CEO, it may not be the person who is the day-to-day contact in the business. So as high as you can climb, you want to cultivate a relationship with them. And client love meetings are not meetings like, “Hey, let me walk you through the projects we’re working on.” Or, “I really want to get more of your business.” It’s a, “Hey Drew, we haven’t touched base for a while. I would love,” fill in the blank, “Go golfing, go to the theater, grab a drink, grab dinner, grab breakfast,” whatever is sort of what you think their norm would be, or what they would be comfortable doing.

“And I just want to talk about the work we’re doing, and I want to hear what’s going on inside your organization, and really just want to spend some time just shooting the breeze and talking about business.” Your goal with the client love meeting, whatever it is, drinks, golf, whatever, is not to get more work out of the client. Your goal is to build relationship with the client. So remember in their role, they don’t have somebody that they can just talk to about the business. They don’t have somebody that they can brainstorm with.

They get shot down all the time, and if their ideas aren’t practical and pragmatic, and on goal with whatever the topic of the meeting is, they don’t have someone just to think out loud with. And so this is your opportunity to help them do that. And it is a great way just to be their thinking partner, be their confidant, because you are one of the rare people outside of their organization that understands their work, that understands their industry, but isn’t an insider who can shoot them down, or use it for their political gain, or all the things that happen inside a client. So client love is just hanging out.

Now, oftentimes you will walk away with more work, but that should not be your goal, and you should be really clear with the client, “Look, this is not about the projects.” Yes, you’re going to ask them, “How are we doing? Are you happy with our team? Are we delighting you on a regular basis?” You’re going to have that kind of conversation, but at a really high level, and then mostly what you want to talk about is business, whatever their business is. But it’s not really about sniffing around for more work, even though that is often a byproduct.

And then the last 5% should be spent on client work and client fires. So again, you can hear with 5% how little of your day or your week or your month should be spent doing client work. That is the ideal that you have a qualified team that is able to take care of the client work without you having to get pulled in very often, but it is unrealistic to think that we would never get pulled in, that there’s never a crisis, or that there is never a project that’s so important that the team wants our input or wants us to review. So 5%. So that’s how your day should be really broken up.

Why these items? Why are these important? Well, I will tell you, and like I said in the beginning, number one, it’s important because if you don’t do this stuff, nobody’s going to do it. If you aren’t doing the Bizdev, if you aren’t managing the business and looking at the finance, these are things that you can’t abdicate to somebody else. These are things that are so important to you, to your family, to the financial outcome of the business, that you have to spend some time here, and you have to invest the effort.

Now some of you may have Bizdev people, that’s fine, but you still are going to be spending part of your day supporting them, helping them, look at reviewing their work, participating in the thought leadership and all of those sort of things. If you have a bunch of salespeople on your team, I guarantee you they need your time and attention, much more probably than they are getting. So don’t think that just because you’re not doing it all by yourself, it doesn’t mean that you can skip that part of the day.

All right, so why does it matter? Number one, because it’s your job to do, and if you don’t do it, no one else will do it. Number two is really, really hard to grow an agency without someone spending a lot of time on Bizdev, client love, growing the team. Think about every one of these things. Bizdev, managing the agency and making sure you’re running the business based on the numbers, mentoring the team and inspiring the team, client love and putting out fires and saving the day so you don’t lose a client. All of those things impact your agency’s ability to grow.

And so if you’re not doing your job, your agency’s growth is going to be stagnated because you aren’t taking care of business in the way that you need to. Another area where you are stunting the growth, is your staff. If you’re in all the work, and you’re taking all of the big projects, and you are letting your people kind of walk behind you and kind of clean up the mess or do the tasks, they’re not growing, they’re not learning, they’re not being stretched, they’re not being challenged.

And so for a lot of you, I hear you say, “Gosh, I wish my employees were thinking more like an agency owner. I wish they could do the strategic thinking, “I wish they could. I wish they could. I wish they could.” Well, guess what? You’re one of the main reasons why they’re not, because you’re doing it for them, and you’re in the way of them having to really stretch themselves and grow. Another reason why this is important is because it really impacts the value of your agency, when you go to sell your agency.

Some of the key factors that add value to your agency are, number one, the agency owner is not involved in the day-to-day work. Number two, there is a defined new business program that someone else can sort of follow and see and step into, when the agency owner leaves. Longevity of employees and clients is a huge impact on valuation. Well, guess what? If you’re not mentoring them, if you’re not growing them, in terms of the team, and you’re not spending time loving on the clients, creating a relationship with them, and putting out fires before they become a big deal, and you lose the client, then all of these things impact the valuation of your business.

So, if you want the agency to grow, if you want your team to grow, and if you want to get more money for your business or have it be worth more money, you’ve got to start doing your job every day. Okay. So let’s talk about the how. But first, before we do that, let’s take a quick break.

Hey, sorry to interrupt, but I wanted to make sure that you are thinking about how to connect with your clients by figuring out what they love, and maybe a few things that they’re not so crazy about with your agency. So at AMI, one of the things we offer are client satisfaction surveys. We do both quantitative and qualitative, so an online survey, but also interviews with some of your key clients, and then we come back to you with trends, recommendations, what they love, what they don’t love, lots of insights around how you can create an even tighter relationship with your clients.

So if you have interest in that, you can go under the, how we help tab, on the AMI website, and very bottom choice on the, how we help tab, is the client satisfaction surveys. You can read more about it. But whether you have us do it or you do it yourself, or you hire somebody else, it is really critical that you be talking to your clients about what they love, and what they wish was different or better. So do not miss the opportunity to tighten your relationship with your client, whether we help you or not. All right, let’s get back to the show.

All right, we are back and we’re talking about how an agency owner should spend their day. So I walked you through the percentages, I walked you through why it matters, and now I want to talk about how do you go from wherever you’re at now, to being able to do what I outlined for you, because I know for most of you, you’re not there. First of all, if you are a solo owner, then guess what? That’s your day, that’s your week, that’s your month, is what I broke out for you. If you have partners, you can kind of divide and conquer.

So oftentimes in an agency partnership, one person owns more of the Bizdev responsibility, kind of the Bizdev client service responsibility, and the other partner often owns more of the operational side. So project management, finance, facilities, all that sort of thing. So you can divide and conquer, but you need to really be thoughtful about how you divide and conquer. You still need to have both partners helping pull weight on client love and mentoring the team, and client fires. Yes, maybe one of you owns Bizdev, and both of you should be looking at the finances.

Both of you should be running the business, perhaps at different levels, but you can divide and conquer a little bit. And in that case, in many cases, one of you might be the CFO or the COO, and so you might be a little more involved in the day-to-day grind of the work. And then the other partner is more on the Bizdev client service side. And so they have to stay out of the fray of the work. But both of you, neither of you should be spending a lot of time doing client work.

One of you can certainly be running the agency itself, and the other one can be pursuing new business and inspiring the team, and all of that sort of thing. So there is that caveat. All right, so how do you get this done? First of all, this is not going to be revolutionary, you’re not going to listen to this podcast and tomorrow all of a sudden everything’s going to change. Your calendar won’t allow that. Your habits won’t allow that. Your team won’t allow that. So you have to be really clear about what you want to do, and I would love to see you quarter by quarter map out how you would like to shift these numbers.

So the first thing again is, you’ve got to know how you’re spending your time. So if you’re not tracking your time, for a couple of weeks I want you just to keep a notepad or something on your computer, or actually do frigging time sheets, or do it on your calendar, but really be diligent about tracking how you’re spending your time, so that you can look at where you’re at, and then make a plan to get you from where you’re at, to where you need to be. Then I want you quarter by quarter to set some goals. And so if you’re doing 10% Bizdev now, in the next quarter I want you to try and get to 25%, and then after that maybe 35%.

I want you to just map it out, like how can I begin to make the shift. For a lot of you, you’re going to have to shed some client work, and you’re going to say, “Well, I don’t have anyone to give it to.” Well, you know what, then that means you’re not properly staffed. You should not be billable. You should not be serving clients more than, again, 5% of your time. So you may have to rethink about staffing, you may have to think about hiring someone, whatever it may be. So this is, again, this is going to be an evolution, not a revolution. So set some goals and begin to move closer and closer and closer to the ideal division of your labor, and focus and time.

And then you need to share your goals with your leadership team, with the entire agency, but you want to build an accountability. So the best thing about being an agency owner is you’re not accountable to anyone. And the worst thing about being an agency owner is you’re not accountable to anyone. And so you need to build in accountability so that other people are helping you do this hard thing. Because I talk about it in such a matter of fact way, it doesn’t mean I don’t think it’s going to be hard. I know it’s going to be hard. But it is critical to your business, and so we’ve got to get you there.

So tracking time, setting goals, and then incrementally moving to this, there is no reason in six months why you cannot be living the framework of what I’ve mapped out, the 50% Bizdev, 20% inspiring and mentoring your team, 15% at running the business, and then 5% client love and 5% on fires and work. So six months, but map it out, set the goals and share your goals. Another thing you’re going to have to master if you’re going to do this, is you have to take control of your calendar.

So right now, when I say to you, look, 50% of your week has to be spent on Bizdev, you would look at your calendar and say, “Drew, you’re crazy. I don’t have 50%, there are no more hours in the day.” That’s because you let everybody else in the world fill your calendar. But if you start looking at what’s on your calendar and you start moving things aside that you shouldn’t be doing, like client meetings, like some of the internal meetings that you attend, that you really don’t need to where somebody on your leadership team can attend.

By the way, this is hardest if you are five or six people or less. When everybody’s wearing 12 different hats, and you’re all playing all kinds of roles, this gets much easier when you get to probably 10 people or larger. Not saying that you’re off the hook if you’re not 10 people or larger, but I’m just saying I acknowledge that it’s harder. But anyway, you need to take control of your calendar. You need to block time off.

And the best way to do this, and this will sound radical, but I have never had an agency owner do this that they didn’t say to me later, “That was a game changer for me, that opened up so many opportunities.” Is I want you to take one day a week and be unavailable. And that doesn’t mean you’re taking the day off. It doesn’t mean you’re golfing, it doesn’t mean that you’re at the spa. It means that you have one day that is… In the good old days before COVID, I would’ve told you to work offsite, but so many of you work from home now, I’m still going to call it offsite, but what I mean by that is, unplugged.

So for one day a week, you cannot be reached by email or by cellphone. Before you freak out, you can also do this in two half days, so Tuesday, Thursday, but it has to be in the morning. Because if you schedule it in the afternoon, something’s going to happen and blow up, and you’re going to get sucked into some sort of fire, and you’re never going to carve out that ti