Episode 87

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Craig Barnes consults with owners of small to midsize advertising agencies to improve their people, processes and profitably. It’s the sum of a lot of experiences across 30+ years of owning and operating an advertising agency.

He learned early on that operating an agency was both rewarding and challenging and benefitted from seeking the counsel of others to help guide a path to growing his three-location agency.

As a 15+ year member of an AMI owner network group, Craig has fully lived AMI’s mission “to help agency owners increase their AGI, attract better clients and employees, mitigate the risks of being self employed in a such volatile business and best of all — let the agency owner actually enjoy the perks of owning the joint.”

While still involved with his agency, Craig now spends the majority of his time working with owners who seek AMI’s assistance to achieve their goals.

He has a passion for a hands-on, roll-up-your-sleeves approach to analyzing issues and developing actionable solutions.

An amateur chef, Craig enjoys cooking for family and friends and has a not so secret desire to spend part of the year in Italy. He’ll also gladly share recipes with you.

 

 

What you’ll learn about in this episode:

  • The key executives (#1s) group Craig facilitates for AMI
  • What makes key executives so valuable
  • Integrators: the employees that don’t want to be owners and just want to pull the levers
  • How we as agency owners make life hard for integrators by not letting go of control
  • Having an empowerment agreement with your #1s for setting expectations for who gets to control what
  • Setting regular meetings with your key executive that you do not break
  • How agency owners can know whether or not they’re ready for a #1 to take things over
  • Traits that make for a great key executive
  • How to compensate your #1s
  • The impact key executives are having on agencies by committing to goals

 

The Golden Nugget:

“We all have blind spots, and need somebody to help us see the big picture.” – @CraigSBarnes Share on X

 

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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 HubSpot we’ll show you how to build an agency that can scale and grow with better clients, invested employees, and best of all, more money to the bottom line. Bringing his 25 plus years of experience as both an agency owner and agency consultant to you, please welcome your host, Drew McLellan.

Drew McLellan:

Hey everybody, Drew McLellan here. Another episode of Build a Better Agency. For many of you, one of your goals is that you don’t have to do it all anymore, that you have built a team that you can count on and who is skilled enough that they can step up and do a lot of the things that historically you’ve had to do. And so today’s guest is going to help me dive into that a little bit. So let me tell you about him. So, Craig Barnes, first of all, I got to tell you, Craig Barnes is a great friend of mine. We’ve known each other for gosh, probably 10-15 years. And Craig started in the TV side of the business. About 30 years or so ago, he decided to start an agency. Over the course of the last 30 years, he has owned and run his own agency, which he still does today.

At one point, the agency was over 50 employees, three offices in three different states. So Craig brings decades of agency owner experience to the world. Craig is also on the AMI team. And one of the things that Craig does, and the reason why he’s on the podcast today is, he facilitates what we call the key executive group. So imagine an agency has a right-hand person, a COO, sometimes a director of account service, but really it’s the agency owner’s right-hand man if you will. Those folks come together in a network, so its a peer network, so everyone in the group is a right-hand man or woman. And some of them have minority ownership, but most of them do not.

They come together twice a year and hang out for about two and a half days in the fall and in the spring, share best practices, learn from each other, share resources, and Craig is the guy that brings them together and facilitates that. So he in essence is coaching and facilitating and eavesdropping on these conversations with these folks. So we thought it would be interesting to talk about sort of their perspective on the agency and how they’re trying to help agency owners and what gets in the way of that. So, without any further ado, Craig, welcome to the podcast.

Craig Barnes:

Thanks Drew. Glad to be here.

Drew McLellan:

So, you and I have both been agency owners for a long time and we both have had key employees who make our lives a heck of a lot easier. And as you know, about a year and a half ago, a lot of the agency owners wanted to provide some professional development and some sort of peer to peer mentoring for their key execs, which is why we started these groups. So what surprised you so far about these folks? You know, you’re hanging out with 40 or 50 sort of key execs, what is surprising you about these people?

Craig Barnes:

I just think their total commitment to helping their owners move the agency’s mission forward. Very skilled, very bright, very involved in the business and willing who do what it takes to help move the needle for the agency in the marketplace. And some come to the position having worked at other agencies before, which I think helps bring a little bit of unique perspective for that owner. And some have grown up in the agency and gained the confidence of the owner to the point that they are in that role so they really know the organization inside and out. And I think that, overall, I characterize these people as being very interested in making sure that the owner and the team behind the owner are all sort of on the same page.

And some are interested in ownership and some frankly are not. There’s a mix within the people that we have in our groups. But all of them though, I think have a singular focus of, “How can I help my owner achieve what we’re trying to achieve here?”

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. You know I think one of the things that’s interesting is owners often assume… Agency owners can be, I don’t want to say paranoid, but they can be concerned about sort of opening the kimono too far and either letting the employees see the bad news or how great it is, how much they make, whatever that is. And always assuming that their employees are sort of cut out of the same cloth. And one of the things that I’ve noticed about the key execs is, in traction language, most agency owners are visionaries and most key execs or right-hand people or number ones are integrators. And many of them have no desire to really be in the front role and to run the agency and be the face of the agency. They like being in the background making sure that the machine is actually working.

Craig Barnes:

That’s absolutely right. I mean, I think in the pure traction model and people that listen to the podcast follow that model and know that very well. And you need an integrator. You need somebody to, as you say, pull the levers. And I do think that the people in our groups fit that description almost “to a tee” that that’s what they are interested in doing, with the exception of I’d say there’s a couple people that are certainly interested in ownership and there’s nothing wrong with that. But I think also to elaborate on your point a little bit, as owners, most of us probably did not set out to own an agency.

Drew McLellan:

We’re accidental business owners.

Craig Barnes:

Absolutely.

Drew McLellan:

Most agency owners are. Yep.

Craig Barnes:

Absolutely. So we’ve had to learn along the way how to run an organization and some of us have done better jobs of that than others and we’ve learned by trial and error and we get counseling and advice and coaching and all those kinds of things to grow into our positions. And through that experience, I think oftentimes we find ourselves in a position, and I think you can relate this to your personal life too, whether it’s your wife or your husband or whomever, we all have blind spots.

And we need somebody who can help us make sure that we’re seeing the big picture when sometimes we may be so focused on a particular subject or area of interest that we don’t see the train coming down the tracks the other way. And we need somebody to help us stay on our game. And I certainly think that, as a key exec, and number two, an integrator, that’s what these folks do.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. It’s interesting. I just did a podcast interview. It hasn’t aired yet, but I just did a podcast interview with Mark Winters, the guy who wrote Rocket Fuel, which is the companion book to Traction, and he was saying that integrators are kind of a rare beast, that for every four visionaries, you’re going to find one integrator. And so for agency owners that have found a great right-hand person, it is in their great interest to make sure that that person stays engaged and connected to the agency because they’re kind of a unicorn. They’re hard to find.

Craig Barnes:

Right, and I think that what I hear most from our key execs is that they want to have a stream of communications that works both ways with their owner, both for contributing, as well as for those times when they need to push back and ask them to consider perhaps another strategy or another direction. And they want that both ways. And they also want to know as much about the operation as possible and for them to be forthright, and as you said, share the good news and the bad news, because that’s the only way they can truly be effective.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. So in your conversations in the network meetings with the integrators, what are some of the issues that they are wrestling with? What are some of the specific things that they sort of feel like they’re banging their head against a wall about?

Craig Barnes:

I think consistently, and again I think this goes back to us as owners having not set out to do this originally, is the control. We have a hard time letting go. And I think that’s a lot of what the key execs run up against is that the owner will want them to take control and to run with it, but then will stand over their shoulders sometimes and micromanage things. And we all know we’ve seen that across the number of people that we’ve encountered in our agency lives of people that tend to want to hold the reins. And I get it as an owner. I get it. I mean, I was talking to someone about a month ago about this who’s with an agency and they were expressing that frustration.

I said, “Look, you have to at least have the perspective knowing that your owner started this agency. They put their blood, sweat, and tears into it. And it’s a little difficult sometimes to let go of the reins. As much as it’s important for growth of the agency, it’s difficult sometimes.” And I think if you have that perspective, knowing what the owner sort of feels, this odjet, if you will, that they feel, that it can help you understand where they’re coming from and put you in a better position to sort of lead from the rear sometimes, but have that perspective because it is tough. I mean, you’ve been there, I’ve been there, and probably every agency owner that’s listening to us has been there too. It’s like, “Uh,” you get that feeling like, “Oh, I know I want them to do this, but boy, I just feel so nervous sometimes.”

And I think you have to develop a relationship and you have to develop that sense of trust between two people in order to move that forward. But I think that’s the biggest thing that people bump their heads against is just the owner sort of getting in the weeds, getting in the way, and not letting them do what they’ve asked them to do.

Drew McLellan:

Well. I think part of it is, one of the conversations I have with owners, and I know you do too when you’re coaching them, is someone else’s right way may not be your right way, but it doesn’t mean that it’s not going to get you to the end game and that if you want to scale your business, and you know most owners… It’s fascinating to me, on the one hand, every owner talks about the fact that they want to not be involved in the day to day. They are tired of working the 60 hour work weeks. They’re tired of being the only person who can do strategy, fill in the blank, fill in the blank, fill in the blank. And yet they’re the bottleneck stays in the way of that being able to change.

Craig Barnes:

Yep.

Drew McLellan:

It is akin to inviting a nanny in to raise your kids during the day while you are at work. It’s often hard to watch someone else discipline your kid, or get a hug from your kid, or whatever, go to the school play with you, whatever that is. But the reality is, if you don’t do that, then you have to stay anchored home and you can’t go out and do what you need to do. So you’ve got to set the nanny up to be successful and I think that comes down to, and I’m curious your thoughts, but I think that comes down to having really clear expectations about who gets to decide what when, and having almost like a safe word where you can say orangutan and that says, “You what, you’re violating our agreement.” Whatever that is, whatever the communication mechanism is that says, “Look, you told me that I could make this decision and that as long as these criteria were checked, that you were going to let me run with this and now you’re not. Now you’re pulling the rug out from under me.”

Craig Barnes:

Right. And I will tell you that a real simple way to address that and a full attribution to one of the members of our key exec group has this in place with her owner, and it’s an empowerment agreement and it’s a one-page document. And you know, we all set goals. We sit down with our staffs or with our number one and we create a set of goals for the year. But really the empowerment agreement can be a simple one-page document that basically has four points to it. And it’s about decision-making boundaries. And point one is, please go forward and run with these. And you decide which of these things do you want your number two to run with. Two, please inform me after you take certain actions and do certain things. Three, please consult with me on X, Y, Z. And then four, please request my permission about, again, whatever list is.

And it’s very simple, right? And I think if you have that in place, then there’s something for reference to your point earlier that you can go back to and say, “See, this is what you asked me to do. This is what you agreed to.” And I think it creates a framework to help accelerate the process to a point that you begin to see those results you’re looking for and as you say, not work the 60-hour work week, or allows you as an owner to focus your time to work on that business as opposed to being in the business too much and getting in the way of progress.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. That is a great model and tool.

Craig Barnes:

It really is.

Drew McLellan:

And I think it’s created in a moment of calm and in a moment where you’re not feeling pressured to make a decision so everyone is sort of bringing their most rational self to the discussion as opposed to their emotionally stirred up or… I think at the end of the day, one of the ways I explain this to employees, which is I think right in alignment with what you do is every owner has made a bad decision that put them in a position, whether it was I didn’t chase after new business aggressively enough, whatever it is, they’ve made a bad decision that put them in the position where they have to let someone go because they just don’t have enough money in the coffers to keep somebody on payroll.

And so I think at the end of the day, the fear for the owner of letting somebody else raise the baby is the impact that it has on the family. And so the motivation is great, it’s just sort of misguided.

Craig Barnes:

Absolutely. Absolutely. And I think too that owners, as you say, they have had those experiences so it shapes some things that they do down the road, but in talking with our key execs in these groups, they all I think sort of get that to some degree and they’ve seen those things happen and they really take their role seriously from how they can help motivate the team. One of the analogies I like to use is that… I’m a big hockey fan. Our son grew up playing hockey. He played hockey all through college. And one of the things that you’ll see in a hockey team is a very specific role for the position of captain. And it’s not a ceremonial position by any means.

And what a captain on a hockey team does is that they are the conduit between the coach and the players. So the coach may have some specific things that they want to get done, and the captain can help translate that to the players in a way that makes sense and for the players to relate to what the other player is saying. And oftentimes too, employees may not feel that they can always approach the owner, but they can always approach the number two or the captain of the team to bring concerns to them or ideas that they want to move forward.

And I think that in your point about having made these bad decisions and fear and stuff, I think that in this role, these key execs can help these owners move past that in a way where they’re setting up this communication stream with the team that gets everybody on the same page and I think helps take away some of that fear because they can see the results of what’s happening as the team progresses and things move through the pipe.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. As always, in every relationship, it all boils down to communication. And one of the things, when I look at agencies who have a successful sort of owner and key exec relationship, versus the ones that are struggling, a lot of it is about communication. And so it about the clear boundaries, so the tool you talked about, the empowerment agreement, is really a brilliant tool. But it also is about regular communication. So one of the things that I know works best in an agency with a key exec or somebody who’s a right-hand person is that there is a standing meeting that both of them will bust a hump to honor.

So again, if I’m traveling, we talk on the phone or by Skype or Zoom or whatever. If we’re in person, we’re either in the office or we’re on a golf course or we’re at a bar. I don’t care where it is, but that the key exec comes with an agenda of things to talk about and the owner also probably has his or her own agenda, but that’s the key exec’s meeting to update the owner on where they’re at with goals and what’s going on and decisions that are coming up.

And it’s the time that the key exec truly has the owner’s full attention, because, as you and I know, with owners, A – we’re a little scattered and oh, squirrel, anyway, that’s just our nature. But B – owners are burdened with so much. The to-do list is so awful and so big that even if somebody walks into your door and says, “Hey, do you have five minutes?” You’re looking at them. You’re sort of listening to them, but you’re also either mentally answering an email, or you may even be looking at one of your screens, so they don’t really have your full attention.

Craig Barnes:

Yeah. And I think the key there is what you touched on just a minute ago, and it’s bust hump to keep the meeting.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah.

Craig Barnes:

And that’s the one thing that key execs will tell you is they’re looking for that consistency from their owner and that kind of commitment because you’re right, and we teach this in the workshops too that to have these once a week meetings, or however you set them, once a week, two weeks, or whatever it is, where you come to the table with a very clear agenda about what you want to discuss and that time is sacred.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah.

Craig Barnes:

And you have full attention so that you can address whatever needs to be addressed. And the whole point about consistency is key. And as an owner, I get that. I mean, sometimes, as you say, we’re thinking about many different things, whether we’re looking at cashflow or whatever it is that’s occupying at the moment, you got to be able to clear your head and spend that time with your key exec in order to make sure that the agenda and what is on there is being addressed in a way that helps move the agency forward.

Drew McLellan:

Well, not only is it the tangible getting through the agenda and making decisions, but it is, at the end of the day, this relationship only works if there’s a great mutual respect and trust. And I think having that regular meeting on the calendar and honoring it, even though you’re both crazy busy and you have a million things to do. A, what that does is says, “Look, I can count on you. I can rely on you.”

But it’s about the respect for the other person’s position and through time, by walking through those agendas and making those decisions together, and if the key exec is smart, over communicating what’s happening on the day-to-day to ease the owner’s worries, especially on the front end of the relationship, pays off huge dividends in terms of building up the trust that allows the nanny to take the kids to the playground without mom or dad, and then to take the kids to the zoo and maybe to actually take the kid in the car. It just builds up that trust in a way that I think is pretty hard to do any other way.

Craig Barnes:

Yeah. The one thing that I’ll talk to key execs about is, I know this from my own experience of having a key person work for me, is that I always talk to them about you just can’t bring issues to the table without some proposed solution. And I think often that’s a great way to build trust. If you are a number two and you want to develop that relationship solid with your owner, you have to come to the table with a proposed set of solutions.

It may not be the solution that the owner chooses, but at least it shows you’ve looked at the problem, you’ve thought about the problem, and you’ve addressed it in a way that you think is a way to solve that issue and that you’ve spent the time and you’re deep into it so that at least they have something to consider as opposed to just throwing it out on the table and saying, “Well, what are we going to do?” And this approach, I believe, is a great way to build trust because I’m coming to the table and I’m bringing a solution with me.

Drew McLellan:

And by the way, those key execs should be modeling that with whoever they’re supervising and making sure that they’re doing that when they walk into their office. I mean, that should be an expectation for agency employee behavior at every level. We even teach that at the boot camps. “Look, I don’t care if you’re account coordinator. If you’ve identified a problem, awesome come tell us right away, but come tell us in the context of I’ve given this some thought and I’m wondering if one of these three options might be a good solution, whatever that is.” And depending on your role and your experience level, that’s how you learn how to solve problems and that’s how you move up the ranks because nobody wants someone to just hand them a problem.

Craig Barnes:

Right. Right. Just don’t throw it at my feet and walk away. It’s better to come to the table with some ideas about how we can and solve it. That’s key.

Drew McLellan:

And as the owner, I think you also have to be receptive to the fact that every solution brought to you may not be the way you would solve it, but again, recognizing your own blind spots, that doesn’t mean that one of those isn’t the best solution.

Craig Barnes:

Right, right. And I think that goes back to being flexible and understanding that there are multiple ways to look at something and address things and to be willing to look at it from all angles and to consider that, so that, again, it just doesn’t all fall on your shoulders as an owner to fix everything yourself.

Drew McLellan:

Right.

Craig Barnes:

Why have a number two if that’s what you’re going to do?

Drew McLellan:

Right. Right. I want to dig into sort of what makes an owner ready because I honestly believe not every owner is ready to have a key exec and some owners just aren’t ready to hand over the reins and let somebody else help them raise the baby. So I want to dig into that, but first let’s take a quick break.

I get that sometimes you just can’t get on a plane and spend a couple days in a live workshop and so, hopefully our online courses are a solution to that. Lots of video, hours and hours of video, a very dense detailed participant’s guide and all kinds of help along the way to make sure that you get the learning that you need and apply it immediately to your agency. Right now we’ve got two courses that are available. We have the Agency New Business Blueprint and we have the AE Bootcamp. So feel free to check those out at agencymanagementinstitute.com\ondemandcourses. Okay, let’s get back to the show.

All right, I am back with Craig Barnes from AMI. Craig runs our key exec groups and hangs out with a lot of your top employees, employees who have often been with the agency for a long time. You may be grooming them for ownership, they may be a minority owner already, but they already play a pivotal role in your shop. So one of the things, Craig, that you and I both see in agency owners is sort of a varying degree of business maturity in terms of the willingness to acknowledge that their idea isn’t always the right idea, to mentor and guide without choking/keep employees, and the ability to share responsive ability across the organization so that they don’t have to make all the decisions and everything’s not resting on their shoulders.

When you look at the key execs, what are some of the traits that the “good owners”, the owners who are ready to have a key exec, what are some of the traits they exhibit that listeners need to sort of look in the mirror and see if they match that profile?

Craig Barnes:

I think the thing that I see among those in our groups that have a system that’s working really well is that the owner is first and foremost interested in growing the agency, but realizing they can’t do everything themselves. So they’re openly committed to wanting help, recognizing they can use the assistance so that they can focus on what they want to focus on and truly empower that number two to do the tasks that they’re asking them to do. One in particular I can think of, she does an excellent job of running… She’s responsible for running the day-to-day operations of the agency. So in essence, she’s probably operating as a COO, right?

Drew McLellan:

Yep.