Episode 180

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Agencies have an accountability problem and it starts at the top.

Every day, as owners and team members we make promises to our team. I’ll get the copy to you by 5.” Or, “I’ll have my part of the RFP done by Tuesday.” You’ve heard yourself making those commitments and then you hear that voice in the back of your head say, “I hope.”

If we as owners can’t honor our promises, how on earth can we expect our team to honor theirs? As owners and principals, we overfill our schedules. We overpromise – and guess what? The natural outcome of that is we under deliver, let down our team and set up a pattern where pretty soon, they take everything we say with a big grain of salt.

Everything we do, internally and externally, is deadline driven. If you’re wondering why your employees don’t seem to worry about deadlines or other commitments, like budgets, look no further than your mirror. Odds are, without knowing it, you’ve taught them that the promises we make are “fluid.”

We must be accountable – and hold our teams accountable – for time commitments.

This episode of Build a Better Agency is a solocast. It’s all about providing more leadership in our promises to deliver projects (or answers, or whatever the deliverable may be) on time. We’re all incredibly busy, and too often we use that – and accept that – as an excuse.

You don’t want your agency to be a place whose staff members don’t respect each other enough to keep their promises. And you don’t want your agency to let down or embarrass clients because you didn’t deliver something on time. These are the games we play when we don’t take our time commitments seriously, and they have to stop. Accountability is the key to honoring our word and earning our team and clients’ confidence.

Dig into this issue with me and let’s examine a culture that is reluctant to say no. Let’s look at how we track (or don’t track) our time and our employees’ time. Our goal is not to micromanage or pad billable hours but to get a clear handle on whom and what it really takes to deliver on a project so that we are putting enough time in the calendar to get it done on time and within budget.

What You Will Learn on This Episode:

  • The difference between expectation and agreement
  • Why accountability for deadlines starts with you
  • How to put more breathing room into your calendar so you can honor your agreements
  • The life-changing magic of timesheets
  • Why internal deadlines are at least as important as client deadlines
  • How to build a traffic management function into an agency of any size
  • How to make accountability a lived core value within your agency

The Golden Nuggets:

“When you break a promise to a client, you are making them look bad within their organization.” – @DrewMcLellan Share on X “If we as owners don’t honor our promises, how on earth can we expect our team to do so?” – @DrewMcLellan Share on X “We have to put accountability back into our agencies.” – @DrewMcLellan Share on X “Accountability is not optional in today's agency. And it starts with you.” – @DrewMcLellan Share on X

Drew McLellan is the CEO at Agency Management Institute. He has also owned and operated his own agency since 1995 and is still actively running the agency today. Drew’s unique vantage point as being both an agency owner and working with 250+ small- to mid-size agencies throughout the year gives him a unique perspective on running an agency today.

AMI works with agency owners by:

  • Leading agency owner peer groups
  • Offering workshops for 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 those 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 two books 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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Helpful Resources from this Episode:

Ways to contact Drew McLellan:

Speaker 1: It doesn’t matter what kind of agency you run, traditional, digital, media buying, web dev, PR, whatever your focus, you still need to run a profitable business. That’s why Agency Management Institute started the Build a Better Agency Podcast a few years ago. We help agencies just like yours where one scale your business, attract and retain the best talent, make more money and keep more of what you make. 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 Agency Management Institute. Thank you for joining me for another episode of Build a Better Agency. As we round the bend into March, you are approaching the end of the first quarter. So now is a great time for you to do a quick check of your numbers and make sure that everything is on track. Before we jump into today’s topic, a couple quick things. Number one, congratulations to Nick Heckman. Nick is the winner of the review contest that we’re doing every month. So for the month of February we went through and we gathered up all the names of everybody who left us a review on iTunes. And we pulled one out of the hat. And Nick, you were the winner. I will shoot you an email as well. So just in case you don’t listen to these in real time, you don’t need to worry about that.


  If you would like to leave a review and be eligible to be in the drawing, so the winner every month gets access to one of our free courses. You can either attend one of our live workshops, or you can have access to one of our online workshops. And the way to do that is just to go and leave us a review on iTunes. If you’re not familiar with how to do that, if you go to agencymanagementinstitute.com/reviews, we’ve outlined for you exactly what steps you need to take. There are screenshots there. So you’ll know exactly what to expect and links to get you right there. I promise it won’t take more than a couple minutes, but it’s just super important to us to be able to grow the listenership of the audience and to get your feedback. So it’s not just about having more reviews, but I really do read every single one of them, and I take into account what you have to say.


  So please go do that and put yourself in the running for a free workshop or online course. Speaking of workshops, I want to tell you about one we’ve got coming up in August. So in January we did a workshop as many of you know, with the Mercer Island Group folks, the folks that are the agency search firms, they’re helping brands pick agencies. And by the way, these are agencies of all sizes. So don’t discount what I’m about to say because you are a small shop. But anyway, one of the exercises that they taught in January was this whole idea of how to build strategic insight and then how to present that strategic insight in a way that is really different than how everyone else talks about their ideas.


  So seven agencies that attended that January workshop have already sold over $2 million worth of business since February 1st. So in a month and a week. So five weeks, so five, six, well, February sure. So yeah, five weeks. In five weeks seven different agencies, who by the way on average have a staff size of 12 or less have sold over $2 million of new business using this technique. Well, the technique was so amazing that I asked Mercer Island Group if they would be willing to do a workshop just on that, to really drill down and teach us how to do it and with precision and expertise, and the great news is they said, yes. So we’re doing that in August. It’s August 13th and 14th.


  It’s on the website, go check it out. So go under the training tab and you’ll see the workshop, it’s called Strategic Insights. It’s August 13th and 14th in Chicago. And I promise you, this is a great technique, both for new business, but also for selling new ideas to existing clients. We have a hard ceiling of 50 people for this workshop, and we only have about 35 seats left. So please don’t wait if this is something you think you want to do. I promise you it is going to change the way you sell and you talk to clients about your ideas. So I hope you can join us.


  All right, enough of that. I want to talk about a problem that we have inside our agencies. And it’s a serious problem. And I believe it is in the way for many of us being more profitable. I think it’s a culture issue. I think it contributes to us losing some of our best employees. And in many cases, we, the agency owners are the root cause. And this problem that we have is this lack of accountability. This lack of keeping our promises inside our shop, and it starts with us.


  Now, you may be the exception to the rule, but most agency owners I know are super busy. They’re over-scheduled. They are running from event to event, from meeting to meeting. And oftentimes all of that stuff that they have on their plate means that they break their promises. And we break our promises to our staff every day. We miss deadlines. We are often the bottleneck in our shop. Everybody else is getting their stuff done in the right amount of time, but when it hits our desk, either because we have to do something or we have to review it, we’re the ones that miss those deadlines. When we are scheduled to be in meetings, or when we schedule the meetings, we often show up late or unprepared, or even worse, we’re a no-show. That’s on us. We are setting the tone that says, we do not have to respect each other’s time. We do not have to respect our word when we give it to each other, because really what accountability is all about it’s about keeping your promises.


  And we, my agency on our friends are the worst culprits of this in most agencies. Agencies have to run on a notion of on-time and on-budget, that is a promise that if we’re going to be profitable, we have to make to our clients and our team. And if we the owners cannot honor those promises, then how in the world can we expect our team to do so? That’s the problem. We don’t set the tone. And then, because we feel guilty, we don’t hold our employees accountable either, because we go, “Well, you know what? I’m guilty of that too.” You may not say this out loud, or you say it in your head. And so literally all day long what we do is we’ve created a culture where our team screws other people on our team.


  They don’t do their creative briefs properly so that the creatives don’t get enough input. Or they’re delayed on what they have to do, which means somebody else downstream doesn’t really have enough time to do the work, or they have to do it at night or on a weekend. We do that to our team and then our team learns how to do it to each other. And then what happens is we, the owner, we don’t want to be the bad guy. We don’t want to be the one that’s holding somebody accountable. We don’t want to have that awful awkward conversation, which I’ve talked about in other solo casts. And so we don’t call people out for breaking their word. We make excuses for each other. We go, “Oh, I know you’ve been super busy, but I really need that thing.” And what we’re really saying is, “Come on, man, I’m going to have to work on this all weekend long because I didn’t get it from you.”


  And if you’re not thinking that, I promise you, someone on your team is thinking about it when it comes into their relationship with you. Maybe they don’t feel like they can hold you accountable because you’re their boss. You’re the supervisor, you’re the department head. You’re the owner of the agency. And so they feel like they’re just stuck, putting out your fire and bending their own rules in terms of quality and time and life-work balance. Because we don’t have accountability baked into our agency. Accountability, the understanding that when you’s telling me I’m going to have something Thursday at three, or we promise a client that we’re going to send it to them first thing in the morning, that we’re not sending it to them by noon. We’re not sending it to them in the afternoon. And then we’re leaving the account person to make the excuse why we didn’t quite deliver when we promised.


  We have to put accountability back into our agencies. Now I get it. We always have a great excuse. Client fires, full plate, kid kept me up late. Whatever it may be, it’s going to be a personal reason, or it can be a professional reason. It can be something inside the business. We always have an excuse. And we always accept each other’s excuses. Most agencies do not have the capacity, the training, the understanding, the expectation that they are really going to have tough conversations with each other and hold each other accountable. But if you’ve been losing a lot of employees, if you’ve been losing some clients, if your clients are frustrated with you, I promise you that this accountability is one of the roots of the problem. We have to solve this problem. The excuses, valid as they may be, are not good enough. We have got to fix this problem.


  I’m going to take a quick break and then we’re going to talk about how to fix it. Thanks for tuning in to Build a Better Agency. I just want to take a quick second and remind you that throughout the year AMI offers workshops for agency owners, agency leaders, and account executives. So if you head over to the AMI website and you check out under the training tab, you’re going to find a calendar of all of the workshops we offer throughout the year. We cover quite a wide variety of topics, everything from BizDev to creating a content machine for your agency, to making sure that you are running your business based on the best financial metrics and dashboards that you can. We also have a workshop on agency owner management hacks, all the best practices that agency owners are using to run their businesses well and profitably. And of course, you’re always going to find our account executive bootcamp and our advanced AE bootcamp. So go ahead and check it out on the website, and hopefully one of those will meet a need for you and your agency, and we’ll see you soon.


  Let’s get back to the episode. I am back. Thanks for sticking around. I hope that the first part of this podcast didn’t sound like I was scolding you. But I kind of am, but I’m also scolding myself. This is a challenge for every agency owner and for every agency. So, if you’re starting to feel a little uncomfortable and starting to recognize yourself, know that everybody else who’s listening is also having that same reaction, but there are ways to make this better. And I think it’s super important that we invest the time and the energy into doing that. We have to stop breaking our promises, and the simplest way to do that is to allow room in our day in our life to actually honor our promises.


  If I tell somebody I’m going to have copy for them by noon, then I need to make sure I put that on my calendar as work time so I can get it done. I need to not make promises without looking at my calendar. I need to know what I’m capable of delivering and then deliver on it. Here’s the deal. Accountability is about keeping promises. And I think where we often get in the way of that being able to be sort of a core tenant in our agency is that we often confuse the idea of expectation and agreement. So, when we don’t have process in place, we’ll talk about a traffic manager in a minute or a traffic system. But when we don’t have process in place and we don’t have firm expectations, I don’t know that you expect to have the copy for me by noon, because you said to me, “Oh, sometime in the morning or sometime by the end of the day is fine.” But you’re really thinking you’re going to get it at noon or three. You have an expectation from me, but I don’t understand it.


  It’s very different than you saying to me, not always verbally, but in some way, shape or form, you’re saying to me, “Hey, Drew, I need you to review the RFP response, but I have to have it back by 10:00 AM if I’m going to keep it on schedule. Can you commit to me that I can have it by 10:00 AM?” And if I say to you, “Yes, I commit to 10:00 AM.” Well, guess what? We now have an agreement. We have been very specific about what I have to do and when I have to do it. But agencies are ripe with expectations. I expect my employees to clean up the kitchen at the end every day. My God, they make their own lunch, they make their own breakfast, then they just put the dishes in the sink and it drives me insane.


  Have you ever said that? Have you said it more than once? Have you given everyone that clear expectation and definition of what that expectation is so it becomes an agreement? “Look, you guys, I’m assuming that when you were done with your dishes, your glasses, your silverware, whatever, you’re going to rinse them off in the sink. You are going to put them in the dishwasher. Or you are going to follow the schedule that shows who washes the dishes by hand if we don’t have a dishwasher.” Whatever it is. And then get everyone to agree to that. Do you agree? Do you agree? Do you agree? Now it’s an agreement. And by the way, just putting it in an employee manual is not an agreement. You are stating an expectation, that’s half of it, but you don’t have someone’s agreement or, “Yes, I will do that. I will honor that expectation and now we have an agreement.”


  Agencies are run on expectations and it’s a dangerous, dangerous thing. But we the owners, we the leaders, if you’re on the leadership team, maybe you don’t own the joint, but you too probably break a lot of promises. We have to first start by fixing ourselves. We have to stop breaking promises. We have to stop giving off the impression that it’s okay, because if we can do it, they think they can do it. And that’s not fair or right. So like I said before, we need to make sure our plate is less full. We also don’t have to be the one that is running from fire to fire, to fire every single time. So making assignment, making it very clear. Again, having an agreement about who’s going to put out client fires and how it gets escalated when it needs to, so that we don’t feel obligated to run to every fire is another way for us to be able to honor our promises.


  The biggest thing is our calendars have to have more breathing room. We have to know that everything is going to take us twice as long as we think it’s going to. Every meeting’s going to run long. Every phone call’s going to run long. Every, “Hey, do you have five minutes,” turns into 15. We know that. And yet our calendars don’t reflect it. And so what we do is we often, and I’m guilty of this. I will book things right up against each other. I’ll bookend phone calls or meetings so that one’s going to end at one and I have to be on the phone, or I have to be in another meeting at one. That’s crazy. A, it’s not physically possible. And B, the odds of both of those things ending and starting on time are not big. So on my calendar has to have breathing room for getting from one place to another, allowing everything to run 15 minutes late.


  You know, when I started the podcast, now I’m smarter about it. But when I started the podcast, I would schedule podcasts interviews from noon to one and then one to two, and then two to three, because I would bulk them up into a day. Well, sometimes I would do that for five hours in a row. Well, you can imagine all of the things that I probably need to do in a five-hour run of time. Grab some water, go to the bathroom, make a quick phone call. And I left myself no wiggle room to do any of that. Now I build in a half an hour buffer in between every interview, and you know what? I use that half an hour. But otherwise I was making people wait five and six hours to get a hold of me because I had no room to check my voicemail or my email, or do any of the other things I needed to do. We have to control our calendar. We have to give ourselves more breathing room.


  Another way that we need to add accountability into our agencies are time sheets. And I know that a lot of you think that I just harp on time sheets every time I talk to you, but it’s because I think they’re so. Has nothing to do with billing. It has everything to do with knowing how much time everything takes and how many people you need on a team and how quickly you can deliver on something. We need accurate time sheets so we have the data to know that the agreements we’re making are possible. Another way we can put accountability inside our agency, is we need to start measuring our percentage of on-time and on-budget delivery, not just to clients, but internally.


  I have a lot of agencies say to me, “Well, you know what? We don’t miss client deadlines,” which is what they’re saying is, “but we miss deadlines for each other all the time.” That’s not any better than missing a client deadline. Sticking it to your coworker is not a good long-term strategy. So we need to make sure even our internal deadlines are honored. So, first of all, again, we need to make sure they’re realistic. Then we need to make sure that we all have an agreement about them, that you haven’t assigned it