Episode 341:

How does your agency show up in the world? As agency owners, we have a responsibility to know what’s going on — with our business, our employees, and our clients. There’s a lot going on in the world, and understanding how these things affect the worldviews of others in our space is the first step in deepening our agency relationships, elevating our business, and making sure we go beyond the “one-word” values our industry seems to be riddled with.

In this episode of Build a Better Agency, Karley Cunningham of Big Bold Brand joins me to talk about ways agencies can actually implement their mission, vision, and values into their processes in order to leverage them as strategic branding tools. She also offers expert insights into identifying the worldviews of the audiences who matter most to you, knowing when to take a stance on the important issues, and what to do when your worldviews no longer align with those of your clients.

Brand Strategist and Business Growth Accelerator Karley Cunningham takes businesses from overcrowded, competitive spaces out into blue ocean territory where they can confidently stand out and thrive as brand leaders in their sector.

Having built three successful businesses, Karley knows what it takes to start, develop and lead a company that delivers results. Her entrepreneurial success story is featured in the awarded book: The Widest Net by Pamela Slim. In addition, she’s a sought-after mentor and speaker for national and international business organizations and the host of The Made Possible Podcast.

Believing deeply in the practice of givers gain, she is well-known and networked and rarely goes a day without making a referral or connection. As a former pro athlete, Karley is performance-driven. An avid mountain athlete, she is a two-time finisher of the BC Bike Race, a seven-day, 325 km mountain bike stage race, and is always looking out for her next trail running adventure. When not focusing on the business or expanding her network, she can be found somewhere in the mountains of the Pacific Northwest with her wife and dog in their 4×4.

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 Relationships

What You Will Learn in This Episode:

  • How to proactively influence the way your agency shows up in the world
  • Why it’s important to understand our client’s worldviews, how they align with our own, and what that means for our business
  • Ways to implement your mission, vision, and values as strategic branding tools
  • How to accelerate your business, improve employee retention, and deepen client relationships by taking your mission, vision, and values “off of the page”
  • When it’s important to take a stance on important issues, and how to start those conversions with clients
  • What your consumers want to know about where you stand
  • How to identify and align the worldviews of the audiences who matter most to you
“Agency life is better when you’re working with clients that you love.” @BrandMaven Click To Tweet “The farther apart you get, the harder it’s going to be to work with your clients.” @BrandMaven Click To Tweet “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it. They buy what you stand for.” @BrandMaven Click To Tweet “We don’t have to do big things to show our audiences that we’re serving them in a way that matters to them.” @BrandMaven Click To Tweet “You don’t always need to be the one with the answers, you just have to be aware of the problem, and the worldview, and the need.” @BrandMaven Click To Tweet

Ways to contact Karley Cunningham:

Resources:

Speaker 1:

If you’re going to take the risk of running an agency, shouldn’t you get the benefits, too? Welcome to Agency Management Institute’s Build A Better Agency podcast, presented by White Label IQ. Tune in every week for insights on how small to mid-size agencies are surviving and thriving in today’s market. We’ll show you how to make more and keep more money and keep more of what you make. We want to help you build an agency that is sustainable, scalable and, if you want down the road, sellable. With 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. Welcome to another episode of Build A Better Agency. I hope you’re having a great day, and I want to thank you for inviting me to spend part of your day with you. You know that I do not take that for granted. I am always grateful that you make time in your day and your week for me and for my guests. So I thank you for letting be a part of your day today.

So here’s the deal. I am going to introduce our guest in just a minute, but I want to tell you a little bit about the topic first and how it came to be because then the resource I want to offer to you will make more sense.

So Karley Cunningham is an agency owner up in Canada, and she has lived the agency life for quite a long time, actually started her career as a graphic designer, but really got hooked on brand, and not the visual side of brand, but the contextual side of brand, like how you actually bring a brand to life. If you have read Pam Slim’s book, The Widest Net, Karley’s business is mentioned quite prominently in that book as an example of somebody who really leveraged the strategy that Pam teaches in that book. I know that Pam and Karley have done quite a bit of work together.

So just of connecting all the dots if you’ve listened to Pam’s interview on the podcast around The Widest Net. Both of them, by the way, are going to be at the summit. Pam is a keynote speaker. Karley’s going to be leading a round table. So you have a chance to meet both of them in-person in a couple months if you join us for the summit.

Anyway, what Karley and I are going to talk about today, there were so many things so we could talk about as we were prepping for today’s conversation, but where we landed was we landed on this idea of how she’s got a new workshop that she’s teaching that I found fascinating, which is the whole idea of really understanding someone’s world view as a part of your relationship. So whether that’s employees or prospects or current customers, really understanding their worldview and how the world is affecting them and seeing how it aligns with your worldview, and what that does for your business. So I want to really dig deep into that conversation because I think it’s a fascinating one.

So I know one of the worldview topics we’re going to end up talking about is the racial equality topic that we all been having some conversations around the last year or so. So I wanted to remind you of a tool that I’ve talked to you about before, but we haven’t talked about it for a while. So we put together a racial equity report card, so a way that you can grade your agency to see if you are basically putting a dent in racial equality, how you are approaching it as an agency, how you are contributing to it in your community.

So if you go to agencymanagementinstitute.com/racialequality, all one word, you can download that report card. Some agencies are using it quarterly. Other agencies are using it annually. Some are sending it to their clients to let them know that this is a focus area for them and something that they care about. Others are just keeping it as an internal tool. Anyway, however you use it, I hope it’s helpful, and I just in my head as I’m prepping for talking to Karley, I just thought, “Oh, that would be a good thing to remind you that we have out there.”

So with that, I want to cut right to the chase and get started with Karley because I have a lot of questions for her, and I think this is going to be a topic that’s really rich with meaning and opportunity for you to really reflect on how your agency shows up in the world, and how you show up in the world, and how that aligns with the other folks in your sphere of influence. So without any further ado, let me introduce you to Karley Cunningham and dig in. Okay?

Karley, welcome to the podcast. Thanks for joining us.

Karley Cunningham:

It’s my pleasure to be here with you, Drew.

Drew McLellan:

So for folks who aren’t familiar with you and your work, give them a little lay of the land in terms of your background and how you came to do the work that you do today.

Karley Cunningham:

I’ve been in the industry for 20 plus years. It’s always scary to add up those numbers.

Drew McLellan:

Yes, it is.

Karley Cunningham:

Started my career on the graphic design side. That taught me a really great lesson in the value of visual communications and how to communicate things on a single page without so many words. I’ve worked in so many different aspects. I got into web early when everybody’s like, “Eh, web, it’ll go away. It’s just a trend.”

Drew McLellan:

The past, right?

Karley Cunningham:

Yeah. “It’s just a passing phase,” and eventually found my love of brand, developing brands, working with leaders to really dig in and figure out what are your fundamental beliefs and truths and how does that affect how you’re going to build your agency or your business. In our case, we work with business owners and leaders to do that and then help them figure out, “Okay. So now that you have this set of tools, it’s more than just messaging. It’s really a strategic set of tools. Now, how are you going to take that off the page and implement that into your business and how are you going to teach the rest of your team to do it?” The beauty is when all of that comes together, it aligns everyone and everything under essentially a one core set of tools and a strategy. It’s fun.

Drew McLellan:

Right. It’s really interesting. Last year at the summit, I led a round table on that very topic, that mission, vision, values, what do you do with them. I was fascinated at how often agency owners and, by the way, this is not what we’re going to talk about today, but as our first assign of the day, I was fascinated how many agency owners, it’s in the handbook, it’s on the wall, and they’re done as opposed to that’s just the start. So it was really a fascinating conversation. So I’m sure your work is fun and rewarding as you help people recognize how to actually use them as tools.

Karley Cunningham:

Yeah. Work is really fun for me. It’s going to sound funny, but after we’re done working with the client because what I’m always doing because I love to hear about their successes is I’m always following up saying, “Tell me how it’s come off the page and what’s happening.” Our superstars who are taking it off the page often in really unique ways, their business is accelerating-

Drew McLellan:

For sure.

Karley Cunningham:

… and their people are seeing more success. So that’s the fun part.

Drew McLellan:

Well, it’s employee retention, right? It increases. Its client retention increases. Its client connection increases. So you’re right, everything … It’s less expensive if my employees stay put. It’s less expensive if my client stay put. It’s less expensive, I can sell more to the same people. So yeah, I’m sure they do see exponential growth when they actually leverage the tools the way they should and could.

Karley Cunningham:

Agency life is better when you’re working with clients that you love.

Drew McLellan:

For sure.

Karley Cunningham:

Part of the tool we build is target audience profiles.

Drew McLellan:

For sure. Well, and that gets to actually the topic that, a beautiful segue, thank you, that does get to the topic that I want to talk to you about because I know you’ve got a workshop where you’re helping agencies or corporate clients really figure out how to, as part of the profiling that they’re doing for prospects, begin to understand those prospects’ worldviews and how that’s going to impact the work they do together. So can you talk a little bit about what prompted you to start that workshop? How did you see the need, and how are people responding to it? Then I want to dig into the content of it, but first, just how did it come to be?

Karley Cunningham:

Like so many other things, thank you, pandemic, we had so many business owners and leaders just freaking out going, “Okay. Well, what now?” and how many times did that happen through the course of the pandemic? It wasn’t just solely the pandemic that was causing issues. We’ve got the climate crisis going on. Prior to that, we had the refugee crisis, the Syrian refugee crisis. Then we’ve got how are we dealing with COVID. Then you’ve got the vaccine issues. Do we? Don’t we? Are we pro or against? Then we’ve got George Floyd and the uprising of systemic racism in Canada. It was the discovery of the hidden graves at the residential schools, and that was huge here.

You’ve got the issue with the ports and transport and supply chain crisis, and now you’ve got the great resignation. When I built the deck, even I presented it a few months ago, I presented it about three weeks ago and I had to add, “Okay, and now we’re on the precipice of a potential a world war.”

So there’s been so many things that have happened and have continued to basically pummel business owners and we’re acquire all of us to be present in the moment. I was like, “Okay. So we’re all trying to hold our businesses up as business as usual, but there’s all these extra added layers of stress caused for employees, stress caused for our clients.” So this workshop was really about how do we get ahead and what can we do to lead. If you want to take a real run at it, how do you become a brand leader in your space for those target audiences that you serve?

I think there’s a responsibility for leaders, agency owners to be sensitive to, “Well, what’s even going on with our staff? Do we have staff who are from the Ukraine?” One of my clients, both founders, have Ukrainian heritage. So we’re cutting them some slack right now. We’re slowing down the timelines. We’re checking in on every call saying, “Are you good to dive in today? Do you need to talk about anything not business before we get clear?” It’s a lot.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah, it is a lot. It is a lot. Well, and I think for some agency owners, it’s fascinating. I think a lot of this came to a head in the states, anyway, with George Floyd and all of that, where some agency owners, you could see them running to the fire that they wanted to take a stand, they wanted to share either their own personal opinion or a cultural thing from the agency’s perspective, and others were like, and I try and keep, and the political environment here in the states, I know, and a little bit in Canada, too, political environment over the last decade here in the states has been a little dicey, right? So people have been very leery about expressing their political opinions.

So I think a lot of agents owners are like, “Do I wait into this? Do I not wait into this? Do I have these conversations with my employees or with my clients?” So the whole notion of spending time at a workshop, really thinking about it, trying to decide where you land on all of this, and then how do you begin those conversations to learn about what other people’s opinions are, I think sometimes we get ourselves into a lot of trouble because we just assume that everybody has the same opinion as we do.

So I was with a guy that I know reasonably well. I’ve known him for years and we’re business acquaintances, and I was with him earlier this week, and we were, of course, talking about Ukraine, and he assumed that my political allegiance was, and where I fell in the liberal conservative strain was exactly where his was, which, by the way, it did not, but he just was talking like, “Of course, we were going to be in alignment,” and I thought, “This is really interesting that he’s making all these assumptions about what I believe because I’m a certain age, because I’m White, because I’m male, because I’m a business owner.”

I know he checked all these boxes and went, “Well, Drew must think like I do,” and it turns out I actually don’t. So it was just a really interesting microcosm that I was thinking about as I was coming into this conversation with you and how important it is to have a little more self-awareness and a little more awareness of the people around us. So the timing of this was is perfect, I think. I think you’re right. The world is, we plenty of issues facing us now, and maybe we always do. I think maybe our weariness from COVID makes everything feel heavier.

Karley Cunningham:

Absolutely.

Drew McLellan:

We do have a lot of heavy issues facing our world right now. So talk a little bit about how you help your workshop attendees approach this topic, this idea of understanding other people’s worldviews and how do you weave that into your business relationship.

Karley Cunningham:

What we did was we created a five-step worldview analysis process. I’m really process-oriented so I need to see where things are going, and I’m also very results-driven. So anytime I do a workshop or a talk, it’s less the big inspiration because in conferences, inspiration’s great, but you’re always walking around going, “Well, what can I do with it now? How do I apply this?” Right?

Drew McLellan:

Right. Yup.

Karley Cunningham:

So the good old dog and pony show of mad men era, right?

Drew McLellan:

Right.

Karley Cunningham:

So the five-step process is really about honing in, is identifying a few key people in that ideal audience. So we could be talking prospects, ideal prospects ahead of us. We could be talking about our existing ideal clients, how do we, as you said earlier, keep them loyal. We could even be talking about our staff.

One of the workshops said, “Yeah, great resignation, I believe, is their biggest challenge. Hone in on that.” So identifying the names of those key people, so personifying them. You were talking to your network contact who made some assumptions. So getting in and even having conversations with them if you can, if it is a really dicey, touchy issue, then it warrants a conversation, but identifying who those people are so you can see them in your mind, and then considering which of the crises that I’ve listed affects them the most right now, and what are they then expecting. So speculating how that’s changed their worldview.

Just to dive in because even in building this workshop I was like, “Okay. Hold on a minute. I need to check myself and talk about the right thing here and the definition of a worldview.” It’s the set of beliefs about fundamental aspects of our reality that ground us and influences our perceiving, our thinking, our knowing, and our doing. That can be foundational. These types of crises affect people’s values. Rarely do our values change. We’re all questioning the person in your family that pops up about who feels differently about vaccination than you do. Wow. That’s a surprise for some of us. For others we’re like, “No. I just expected it,” so that constant, even subconscious evaluation.

So understanding where our people, our community, and specific groups are at because they’re all affected by different things, and then to determining how that affected worldview affects their expectations of you and your business or your business and your team. So what do you need to change, if anything?

Drew McLellan:

So is this about figuring out what my worldviews are as an agency owner or my agency’s worldview is, putting that out into the world to attract like-minded people or can a Biden supporter serve a Trump supporter? You know what I’m saying? If you understand each other, can you still work together?

Karley Cunningham:

I think if there’s a mutual level of respect and a deep respect in a long-time relationship and being comfortable being in that gray space with each other, knowing that we’re going to agree to disagree, I think that becomes the detention point. I mean, I think back to a business previous iteration of I call this version 3.0 is I had a business partner and we set our values with this saying, but how we expressed and actually defined those values, this is what taught me to go beyond one word values like integrity and trust and family first, what do I actually mean by those things.

Drew McLellan:

Right. Yeah. What does that look like? Right. Yeah.

Karley Cunningham:

Yeah. Actions speak louder than words. Behaviors speak louder than words, so behaviors around those values, but really pull a detention point between us, and that’s eventually what was either going to cause it to snap, but I made a choice because I knew we weren’t aligning and I had to cut the cord and we dissolved the business. So it’s really the farther apart you get, I think the harder it’s going to be to work with your clients. I mean, even coming back down to our business purpose. Simon Sinek said it right. People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it. They buy what you stand for.

So when we get into political, I think so many business owners have been used to keeping their head down. In the conversation I was having with I will call it a younger business group who were really learning to step into the bigger role of leadership recently, they were all having that dilemma of, “Wow! Business has become about politics.” How long can you avoid it for?

Drew McLellan:

So really, it is about, part of the goal in identifying, is about alignment and maybe recognizing where there’s not alignment. So you have to have a higher level of sensitivity around it, but ultimately-

Karley Cunningham:

Absolutely.

Drew McLellan:

Ultimately, are you suggesting that we wear our worldview, our business’ worldview, which is typically the agency owner’s worldview, should we be wearing that on our sleeve? Should we announce to the world, “I’m a liberal conservative. I think climate change is a hoax. I think,” whatever it is you think? I mean, should you be saying that to the world?

Karley Cunningham:

I think it comes down to, I’m going to pick on the introvert/extrovert version, how much of your personal life and personal beliefs do you make public. Are you comfortable making public? I’m very comfortable, having been, I’m Caucasian, but I’m also a member of the LGBTQ community, and I’m very passionate about women’s rights. I call it equalism. Equality doesn’t resonate with me, and also about LGBTQ issues. So for me to be in a room of, say, very religious folks, I need to check. It’s one of my first conversations. Okay. So I need to disclose that this is who I am. Are we going to have an issue? It’s my decision to judge what’s going on in that room as to whether that’s a safe place for me or not.

So it really comes down to the business owner. If you’re comfortable with keeping divider lines and boundaries very, very high and strong and you’re not fluxed by it, then I don’t think it’s an issue for you, but if it’s something you’re passionate about, yeah, fly your freak flag, right?

Drew McLellan:

Right.

Karley Cunningham:

Fly your colors.

Drew McLellan:

Well, but it’s interesting because for you, it’s very personal, right? I mean, it’s who you are, right? So on the flip side, I’m a straight White guy, but I have strong opinions about all of those issues that you just listed. I’m also a dad of a daughter and I have a lot of friends in your community that I feel very passionately have the same rights as everyone else. So for me, it’s a little less personal. They’re not going to come attacking me per se because I don’t represent those issues, but I have a passion around them and a belief around them. So for a lot of people, it may not be their issue, but it doesn’t mean it’s not their issue, if you know what I mean, right?

Karley Cunningham:

Exactly. I mean, it’s not my first identifier, for sure. So my clients are various different people from various different walks of life, and there’s a comfortability for me in that because I, in a way, as I move my way through the world and build my business, learned to become relatively adaptable, and it’s easy for me to be with people as long as there’s a strong sense of respect on many different levels.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. Yeah. This is fascinating. I also think that as society changes, I think about parents’ era or my grandparents’ era, there were certain topics people just didn’t talk about, right? It was taboo to talk about. You had your opinions about all the things, religion, abortion, race, gender identification. You had opinions about all those things, but you didn’t talk about them very publicly. Now, I think we’re much more comfortable or at least open about talking about these issues. So I think for a lot of older business people, it must be weird to be thinking that this would impact your business at all.

Karley Cunningham:

For sure. Yet, you look at the millennials and they have so many expectations of their place of employment. “What are you doing to give back?” is I’ve heard one of the most often asked questions in an interview.

Drew McLellan:

For sure.

Karley Cunningham:

“Tell me about what your purpose is beyond making a profit. What sustainability efforts are you making? Are you paying a living wage?” Yeah. I mean, I’ve seen things flipped so quickly in the last 18 to 24 months as stepping into a room with a business leader I respected saying, “Oh, I don’t understand all the uprising around indigenous rights, and what we need to be doing, and the money the government’s giving them, and land acknowledgements,” and here I am standing in the room presenting to one of their groups thinking, “Okay.” So I have a land acknowledgement to deliver, making that judgment, and that’s my belief that it should be done so I still delivered it.

Less than two years later, the same business leader has educated themselves and is now in support of what they were staunchly against. So that’s that example of the people around you affect your worldview, the expectations of your clients and who you surround yourself with, your community, right?

Drew McLellan:

Right. Well, and I think every piece of research we take, it’s not just our employees and our clients, it’s our consumers. They want to know what we stand for and they want to know what we are aligned with because they’re making buying decisions not just based on your product or service, but also, again, your worldview on topics that matter to them. So it feels to me like, and we need to get into the process of all this, but it feels to me like sooner or later businesses don’t have a choice anymore. We have to declare who we are and what we’re about, which actually I think is awesome. I think we should have been doing it all along.

I don’t believe there’s a work version of us and a personal version of us. I think that we’re the same person or the same leader. So you might as well just own who you are and what you believe, and there’ll be people out there that feel the same way you do no matter what you feel like. So why wouldn’t you want to work with and for and on behalf of people whose values align with yours? That just makes sense to me.

Karley Cunningham:

So much less tension. Yeah.

Drew McLellan:

Right, right, right.

Karley Cunningham:

It’s just easier. Who needs to make work even harder than it is, right?

Drew McLellan:

Right, right.

Karley Cunningham:

Building an agency is hard work. Don’t make it harder having to adapt to and almost chameleon yourself, “Oh, now I’m meeting with this client.” If they’re so diverse and so disparate in their thoughts, it’s almost every meeting you’re reading the CRM to go, “Right. This is what Susan is like, and this is what Josie is like, and this is what James is like.” It’s a lot of work. Law of attraction says like attracts like. It’s just less resistance and less friction.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah, absolutely. All right. So I do want to get into the process, but we’ve actually talked ourselves right up to the break already. So we’re going to take a break and then we’re going to come back and we’re going to dig into the five-step process.

Hey there. Just a quick interruption. I want to make sure that you are aware that you are cordially invited, not just invited, but cordially invited to join our Facebook group, our private Facebook group. All you have to do is go to Facebook and search for Build A Better Agency and you’ll find the Facebook group. You have to answer three quick questions. You have to put in the agency URL. You have to talk about what you want to learn from the group, and you have to promise to behave yourself, and that’s it, and then we’ll let you in, and you can jump into the conversation with over a thousand other agency owners and leaders.

There’s a robust conversation happening every day. People are sharing resources and best practices and discussing everything from work from home policies to maternity and paternity policies to biz dev strategies. So come join us and jump into the conversation, right? Speaking of conversations, let’s head back.

All right. We are back, and we are talking about identifying the worldview of audiences that matter to you, whether it’s your employee base or your client base or your consumer base beyond that, helping your clients out because I also think, and I want to get to the process so I’m going to say this quickly and then shut up, but I also think this is something we can help our clients understand that they, too, have to do this because they’re trying to message their community or their consumers. So it’s not just us as agency folks. This is actually something we can help our clients solve. So all right. Enough of that. Talk to us a little bit about the process.

Karley Cunningham:

All right. So step one is getting clear on what audience are we focusing on to solve this question. So first step, is it audience number one that we solve this set of problems for? Is it audience number two who we solve that set of problems for? So digging into, “Okay. We’re going to focus on ideal client audience number one.” Now, think about what clients you’d love the most, who you would love to, I always use the gremlins analogy. We had a pour water on them and have them duplicate. Who would that be? So getting clear on who that is because those are typically the people we know the best, who have gotten into deep relationship with us, who we spend a lot of time with.

Drew McLellan:

Who’ve stuck around for a while.

Karley Cunningham:

Wouldn’t we want to have them stick around for a lot longer?

Drew McLellan:

Yup.

Karley Cunningham:

The beauty of this process is we don’t have to do big things. I’ll get to that, but we don’t have to do big things to make them see that we’re serving them in a way that matters to them. I mean, we do that every day, but staying current and relevant. It’s really easy just to keep doing businesses, we’ve always done it, and not look at these things.

So step two then is, okay. Let’s say it’s Steven and Jessica of ABC company. That’s who we’re thinking about. We need to consider which of the crises or which of the big events. It can be political. It can be personal. What’s going on in the world right now that is affecting them? What’s their biggest challenge or issue? Then ask yourself, “Well, how is that affecting Steven and Jessica? What’s going on in their world?”

Drew McLellan:

So if they’re not somebody who shares a lot of personal stuff, how do we ascertain that?

Karley Cunningham:

It’s about depth of relationship. I mean, landing a client requires us to know so much about them, anyways. Again, we come back to that like attracts like. You’re likely going to have similarities in your clients in their values, so understanding what the value set is for this target audience, understanding what matters to them. You’re surely have heard them talk about their family or maybe they are a family without children. It’s listening for the nuances along the way. I mean, effectively, that means paying attention to our clients and who they are.

So many people will say, “Well, I don’t have the time to do the research.” Just sit and think about them. You know your clients way better than you think you do simply by the conversations you have. Are they sports fans?

Drew McLellan:

Certainly, if you can apply that to clients, you can apply it to your employees even more because you’re around them all the time.

Karley Cunningham:

Easily.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. Right.

Karley Cunningham:

Yeah, just by paying attention to the people you care about. Good agency owners and good account executives care about their clients, right?

Drew McLellan:

They should.

Karley Cunningham:

Yeah, right. If they don’t, we have a bigger problem.

Drew McLellan:

That’s right.

Karley Cunningham:

Just taking the time to, and if you need to get out of the office, get out of the office and just think about, “What are the last few conversations that I’ve had with Ikbal or Samit or Janice? What are those conversations been like? What have we talked about? What do they call me with when they talk about, ‘Hey, how are you?’ Outside of the problems, the direct business problems we’re solving, what are the conversations we have?” Great indicator right there.

So digging into that is going to help you understand what’s important to them, what crises or what things are affecting them right now. I mean, hopefully, we come into a place in the world where things settle down, but things are still happening in people’s lives. Change is going to happen. Is the government going to implement some new system that affects business? Okay. Well, is that affecting our clients? Great.

So now, speculate, step three, how those crises or events, world events, local events have affected the worldview? How has it affected their values? How has it affected how they show up in the world? How has it affected their expectations? Then from there, we can determine what has altered in their expectation of your business or if you want to look at it differently, maybe their expectation hasn’t changed, but maybe there is something that you can change that surprises them, that pleasantly surprises them or lets them know that you really, truly care about them.

Drew McLellan:

Well, like your example of the clients who have the Ukraine background, what you did for them was you recognized that their attention’s fragmented, that their energy is probably at a different level, and so you adjusted the work environment to adapt to what you suspected how they would show up.

Karley Cunningham:

Absolutely. Another example recently was a business owner who has many employees from South Asia, particularly India, and they haven’t seen their families for two to three years because of the pandemic. They haven’t been able to travel home. They haven’t been able to have the relationships they want to have, and there’s stuff going on over there right now that has to do with land, and I’m not particularly dialed on the detail, but some of them are needing to go back to adjust some of their land agreements or title agreements because people are squatting on this land that they own in India. So they need to go back, but mostly it’s around family. So understanding what is going on in that culture, in that country, since these are our ideal staff members for this particular role or these sets of roles.

The business owner was saying, “Okay. So I want to serve my people, but I want to help them get home, but I can’t have all of them leave at the same time,” or “What if I was to help them with a contribution to their plane tickets. I have this many …” and just watching their head wrap itself around, “Oh, okay. All of a sudden I’m at risk of losing these employees because if I can’t make time for them to go home,” and I see that across the board, “they’re just going to quit and go find another job. Well, I can’t afford that either.” So how do we retain them?

Interestingly enough, what came out in this discussion, it was a round table discussion, was, “Okay, but hold on. You don’t have to be solely the one that solves this. What if you brought your team in and said, ‘How do we make this?’” You don’t always have to be the one with answers. You just have to be aware of the problem and the worldview and the need.

Drew McLellan:

Right, and be willing to have the conversation or be part of a solution.

Karley Cunningham:

… or choose not to, but also understand if we don’t make this change, what’s the risk?

Drew McLellan:

Right, right. Consequences with every choice, good and bad.

Karley Cunningham:

Absolutely.

Drew McLellan:

Right. Yeah.

Karley Cunningham:

Yeah, yeah, and then so getting into, “Okay. What do we need to change? What do we need to do?” the step is simply review and prioritize. What are these changes that we should indeed make, and what is the priority of them or what are the ones that we can choose from? What are some of the ones that we can shelve? Then simply working with your leadership team or the implementation team in one department or division to execute that change. I always say to start with the low-hanging fruit.

Drew McLellan:

So typically for you, the low-hanging, what does that look like, the low-hanging fruit?

Karley Cunningham:

For me, it’s always something that we can pick off and do easily but have a noticeable impact because it gets the momentum flowing. We’re always so busy working in the business. Sometimes to set aside a time to work on the business for something that seems significantly large is the biggest hurdle to get over. So picking off one, communicating what that change is or reaching out to our clients, communicating the change or simply doing it and then testing and measuring it. The low hanging fruit is what’s the path of least resistance.

Drew McLellan:

I’m curious what you think we should do if once we do all of this discovery, we figure it out, and what we figure out is we’re not in alignment. I don’t want to help that. I don’t want to support that or they support something I’m vehemently against. Now, what?

Karley Cunningham:

I think that’s a bigger business strategy decision coming back up to what are our fundamental beliefs and truth because if we were aligned and now we’re not aligned, “Oh, hold on a minute. Did our fundamental beliefs, interests change? Has my worldview shifted?” I know mine certainly has through the pandemic, through some of the things that we’ve faced. I mean, it’s as simple as in our house, we no longer buy kangaroo meat for our dog because we feed raw because because my wife is Australian and the population of kangaroos in Australia has been devastated through the fires. That’s something I wouldn’t even … Our boys got a picky stomach, so we’ve got to make good choices and that one’s now off the table, right?

Again, climate crisis. So it’s these little nuances of have we ourselves changed and asking ourselves if we are as far apart, can we continue to serve our client in the best way possible? If you’re in it beyond profit, are you in it to be doing the right thing?

Drew McLellan:

Well, and if your right thing is in complete opposition of their right thing, then how do you reconcile that? So at what point do you bring the audience, either the employees or the clients or prospects, at what point do you bring them into the conversation? So a lot of the steps are about me thinking about and identifying and supposing and extrapolating. At what point do I go, “Okay. Hey, Babat. I recognized that this issue is important to you and I’ve made some assumptions or I’m wondering if this is how that’s affecting you or can you talk to me about how it’s affecting …” When do you have that conversation? When do they become part of the process?

Karley Cunningham:

I think as soon as you identify it is the best time, right? Because we’re in relationship with these folks. Ignoring it is only going to maybe, maybe not, but assuming it is an issue that’s important to them, is only going to cause them to question who around us is also aligned with us, who is making donations to support the people of the Ukraine, who is helping dismantle systemic racism in our organization. If that’s something that’s really important, they’re going to start looking for folks, and if we’re ahead of the curve, that’s where I’m talking about helping agencies and businesses become brand leaders is always being that one or two steps ahead to say, “Hey, we recognized that this has been going on. Talk to us about it.”

Get curious. Curiosity is the best step forward into a conversation of, “Hey, we noticed this. Tell me about how that’s affecting your business. Tell me what you think about that. How do you think we could or should do something about it?” Let them tell you. I mean, conjecture is great, and as soon as you can step into dialogue is fantastic.

Drew McLellan:

At what point do I start recognizing? Because I suspect that as you think about other people’s worldview and the issues that they care about, it also forces you to have quite a bit of clarity about your own position and opinions. So at what point do I start deciding how, and where, and when as a business owner I’m going to weave that into the messaging about my business and our beliefs and our core values and whatever those are because it seems at a certain point it flips a little bit, right? Now, it’s as much about me as it is about them because it’s about alignment. So at what point do I go, “You know what? I should start posting about or we should put something …” After the George Floyd thing, a lot of agencies created sort of an equity statement or they talked about the fact that they were going to do certain things.

In fact, we even created a report card, which I should mention in the show notes, for agencies to be able to measure if they were being as equitable as they could be in ways that they could support the fight against racism and all of that. So when do we declare ourselves, I guess, for lack of a better word, and how do you help clients because I’m sure in your brand work some of this comes up, too. How do you help clients figure out what’s appropriate?

Again, you don’t want to start every conversation with a prospect by saying, “By the way, we’re pro this and this and this. We’re anti this and this and this.” So how do you weave that? How do you weave that into your business profile and how you talk about yourselves in all of the ways?

Karley Cunningham:

Yeah. I think it’s deciding what’s on the table, what’s off the table, what are we willing to stand for, and what are we willing to stand against, and how are we willing to do that as a team and a culture, and taking small steps to make sure the big leaps are the places where you can often go wrong. If your companies come out with these big grandiose statements, also checking that it’s not just performative. There’s a lot of accusation of performative going on because companies have been rushing to do things, and then they get the one piece out of the way, but then there’s no follow through.

So it’s setting the path and the plan and, again, not making it overly complicated. It’s just looking at the path ahead of us and going, “How do we need to do that?” I mean, I’ll give you a prime example. I had been courting a client for two years and on social, I’m very much about elevating the voices of BIPOC folks, of LGBTQ folks, and very open about my opinions depending upon where you follow me, Facebook or LinkedIn. LinkedIn is more of my business profile, which I tend to be more conservative on and-

Drew McLellan:

Conservative meaning you don’t talk about your personal beliefs as much, not that you talk about looking conservative.

Karley Cunningham:

Yes. That’s right. Yeah. I’m not as loud on LinkedIn as I am … Facebook for me is very much a personal, these are my friends, these are the people I want to be hanging out with when I’m not at work. Like you said, there is a blend between the two.

Drew McLellan:

For sure, right.

Karley Cunningham:

I tend to be a little bit more poke the bear, rattle the hornets nest on Facebook, but on LinkedIn-

Drew McLellan:

Right. Well, and I think LinkedIn begs more business kind of conversations. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Karley Cunningham:

Yeah. Absolutely. So you can tell what I’m about very much so through my posts, making statements, making people aware of things that are coming up and workshops, but I had personally overlooked our website and we had been courting this client for two years who was working in changing the financial space. They wanted to very much focus an agency who was serving BIPOC folks, having strong equity statements, evaluating, score carding so many of their services to make them more accessible and to allow people to see themselves in that service. I mean, that industry is very White and very male, and very profit-driven.

So how were they shifting? So we’ve been in conversation, and one of their team members, the owner was literally pen to paper and ready to sign, and one of their team members went to our website and said, “Well, hold on a minute. We don’t see any equity statements on their site.”

Drew McLellan:

Interesting.

Karley Cunningham:

“Our strategic partners are all White and cis-appearing,” and this particular team member, as a millennial, wasn’t on LinkedIn. So they were looking at my other profiles, which actually, funny enough, was just Instagram, which I’m not active on. So they weren’t seeing anything there. So they rang the alarm bell and that caused the whole process of, “Well, hold on a minute here.” So they went back and pulled in two or three other agencies into the process, and we ended up losing the contract.

Drew McLellan:

Wow.

Karley Cunningham:

It was simply because I thought that was enough, my LinkedIn, because I very so active there and it’s-

Drew McLellan:

Yeah, interesting. So in this case, you we’re blatant enough about your beliefs.

Karley Cunningham:

Yeah.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah, and honestly-

Karley Cunningham:

Yeah, and also the learning of it, right? The learning of being-

Drew McLellan:

I think that’s where we’re heading, right? That’s that you’re going to have to be, whether you like it or not, you’re going to have to be out there. Again, whatever, as you said earlier in the conversation, whatever your freak flag is, whatever it is, again, whether it’s Biden or Trump or abortion or whatever it is, you’re going to have to start waving it because people, your consumers, in our case, clients or prospects and our other consumers, potential employees are like, “You know what? I want to know.”

Karley Cunningham:

Things have just become so transparent, and that leads right back into how we build our agencies and authenticity. I know I’m going to talk to your buddy Steven in a couple days about how to develop authenticity and how to weave it right into your brand because there’s not one thing that makes us different, and it’s certainly not service price or speed. Even though some companies are like, “Hey, our service is better,” I’m like, “Really? How do you know?”

Drew McLellan:

I always like when brands say, they have some tagline that’s the equivalent of, “It’s our people,” and I’m like, “Because all your competitors only hire morons and boobs. That’s what you’re saying is that they have no good employees, whatsoever, and you’ve got all the prizes.” I’m going to vote no on that. I don’t think that’s actually accurate.

Karley Cunningham:

Yeah,. We have a prospect going through that right now. It’s like, “They’re better people,” and I’m like, “Okay, but what about your people? What do you all believe that brings you together?”

Drew McLellan:

“… and how do you behave differently? What does it look like and feel like to me?” Again, our core values, our beliefs, what we’re willing to fight for, what we’re not willing to tolerate, which, actually, I think it’s more about that. I think people are saying, “You know what? What aren’t you willing to tolerate anymore? What will you stand against, and what will you fight to change?”

I think that’s what people are asking. The world needs so many advocates for so many different issues, and people want to know that if they’re going to go to battle, they want to know if you’re going to be next to them in the battle or not.

Karley Cunningham:

… or are you going to pick up your ball and go home when it gets hard?

Drew McLellan:

Right, right or worse, are they going to see you on the other side?

Karley Cunningham:

That’s a pretty scary prospect, isn’t it?

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. Right. Yeah. Oh, this is fascinating. So as you’re wrapping up the workshop, what are the action items because, again, you can do all of this work, but then is it a matter of, I mean, do I fire the clients that aren’t in alignment? Do I say to the employee that has a belief that is opposite of mine, “Look, we probably need to find you a new home”? What’s the outcome of all of this?

Karley Cunningham:

I would say step one, get in conversation. The realization is there. You’ve written it down in front of you if you’ve gone through the exercise, and evaluate risk, and get in conversation. So many people that are consciously aware can agree to disagree. If it needs to be an offloading process for one or the other, it’s how do we do that with care? How do we take care of you in a manner that we always have but we realize are we at this in pass is the question. If we realize we are, then how do we take care of you because setting one client free, who we know that we can’t serve, they’re still going to talk about you. They’re not going to be like, “Oh, the greatest agency in the world is this new one we’ve found,” because they haven’t formed a relationship. They’re going to talk about the fact that you identified, that you aren’t the best people in the world to serve them anymore because who does that?

Again, leading the way, blazing the path and saying, “Listen. We want you to succeed. So how do we help you do that?” Maybe part of the business is retained or maybe they say, “Well, actually, really love your creative work, but we understand the strategy because you don’t understand XYZ, but maybe we can bring in and pull in another consultant. Is there anybody that you know that’s an expert in this area of …” I mean, we’ll pick on diversity, equity, and inclusion because it’s an easy one right now, and you can bring in other folks and continue to … Figure it out together. Maybe they don’t want to leave, but they recognize, “Oh, yeah. You’ve found a gap. Let’s fill it.”

Drew McLellan:

Well, and I think part of that, do you have the knowledge base versus do you have a belief that is not in alignment, right? If you think diversity is a lot of hooey, then odds are probably not going to be good partners long-term, right?

Karley Cunningham:

Yeah. If you don’t love the planet, Patagonia is not going to hire you. We’ll no longer be your client.

Drew McLellan:

That’s right. That’s right. Yeah. Yeah. Huh. Fascinating. All right. So we could talk about this for another couple hours. So this reminds me a little bit of the conversation we had last time we talked, which was I think scheduled for 30 minutes just to get to know each other. I think two hours later we were still chatting. So I could keep talking about this, but the listeners probably have to get to work.

So in wrapping this up, just give everybody the five steps in just a bing, bing, bing, bing, bing so they can have it at the end of the show to go, “Okay. That’s my marching orders.”

Karley Cunningham:

Okay. Step one, identify who that client you love is. Step two, consider what’s going on in their world that is causing problems, tension, crises. How is that crisis affecting or possibly changing the worldview? If you suspect it, that’s good. Get in touch with them point right there. Just have a conversation, “Hey, I noticed that. Tell me about that. How can we help you?” Right? Be of service. If you can’t get in that conversation, then determine how you suspect that is changing their worldview and their expectations of you as a service provider to them or as a strategic partner of them. This could be your strategic referral partners, right?

Then write down what those expectations and the changes you need to make to best serve them or best be in relationship with them and then prioritize one or two changes you want to make that you feel would be noticeable and make an impact for them.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. Beautiful. Beautiful. All right. If people want to learn more about your workshop, your work, all the things that you’re doing, what’s the best way for them to track you down?

Karley Cunningham:

Website, bigboldbrand.com. If you want to pop me an email, [email protected] and Karley is spelled K-A-R-L-E-Y or I’m on LinkedIn, Karley Cunningham.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. Beautiful. This has been awesome. I knew it’d be a great conversation. Thank you for helping us think about this. I think this is such important work for us that’s not about our work. It’s more important than our work. It’s about how we work and who we work with.

Karley Cunningham:

How we show up as people.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah, yeah, yeah. Awesome.

Karley Cunningham:

Yeah. Thank you, Drew.

Drew McLellan:

Oh, this was great. All right, guys. So here’s the deal. Karley literally gave you five steps, and all you need to do is be brave enough to step into those five steps and to think about, and honestly, as we’re talking, I think clients and prospects are a great audience, but right now, given how all of you are freaking out about your employees leaving and trying to attract new employees, I would start right at home. I would start with your employees in figuring out how do you create a place that is swaddled in your values so that you attract and keep people who are in alignment with what you believe about the world so that together you can have huge impact because I really do believe that there’s no industry that is better suited to change the world than ours.

We have the strategic mind, we have the creative talent, we have the channels, we have the voice. So to surround yourself with people who share your passions around the worldview issues that matter most to you and to wear that on your sleeve and attract clients that also want to make changes there and then to do pet projects together that start to move the needle, yeah, it’s great to make money and it’s great to have clients, but for you to be able to say, “You know what? I’m changing this little slice of the world in a way that’s meaningful to me, and I’m surrounding myself with other people who want to do the same thing,” that’s kind of cool, and it also, from a business perspective, is a great retention tool.

People want to work with and for people that they believe in and that they share the same values. So maybe it’s time to just wear them on your sleeve and own them and actually build your business around them a little bit. So take the five steps, put them into play. I would love to hear how that plays out, and do not let this episode sit on a shelf. This is an action episode, not a listen to and think about episode. You can think about it for a little while, but not too long. I want to hear about action. Put it into play. All right?

So couple other things. First of all, as always, I need to thank our friends at White Label IQ. They’re the presenting sponsor. They make it possible for me to hang out with you every week. So check them out at whitelabeliq.com/ami. They do white label design dev and PPC. They are the saviors for many AMI agencies and podcast listeners. They have certainly helped my agency more than once. I’ve known these people for 20 some years. They are good human beings, and you’ll enjoy working with them. It aligns with this topic. Not only do they do good work, but they do good things or good people. So I think you’ll enjoy your interactions with them. So please let them know. If nothing else, even if you don’t need to hire them, it’d be awesome if you drop them a little email and said, “Hey, I like that podcast that Drew does, and I want to thank you for supporting it.” So that would mean a lot to me if you would let them know that you value the podcast enough and you’re grateful for their support.

As always, please know that I know you have choices out there and that you spend 45 or 60 minutes with me every week, and I know I’m walking your dog and we’re golfing and we’re on the subway, but I’m super happy to multitask with you, but I just know that you have lots of choices. So I’m grateful that you hang out with me on a regular basis, and I love hearing from you. So I’ll be back next week, and I hope you will be, too. So all right. Put this into action. Okay. We’ll see you next week.

That’s all for this episode of AMI’s Build A Better Agency podcast. Be sure to visit agencymanagementinstitute.com to learn more about our workshops, online courses, and other ways we serve small to midsize agencies. Don’t forget to subscribe today so you don’t miss an episode.