Episode 20

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Drew McLellan is the Top Dog at Agency Management Institute. For the past 21 years, he has also owned and operated his own agency. Drew’s unique vantage point as being both an active agency owner and working with 250+ small- to mid-size agencies throughout the year, give 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 — he 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, Entrepreneur Magazine, and Fortune Small Business. The Wall Street Journal called his blog “One of 10 blogs every entrepreneur should read.”



What you’ll learn about in this episode:

  • The things we say about our agencies that make them all sound the same
  • The terms every agency uses to describe themselves
  • Why you can’t say you’re good at everything
  • Finding clients that are the right fit
  • Understanding who you are as an agency
  • The benefits of defining your “why”
  • Remembering that hiring your agency is a huge risk for the person making that decision and what you can do to alleviate that person’s fears
  • An example: how my agency McLellan Marketing Group defines itself


The Golden Nugget:

“If you claim to do everything, they assume you’re not great at anything.” – @DrewMcLellan Share on X

Click to tweet: Drew McLellan shares the inside knowledge needed to run an agency on Build a Better Agency!


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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 Build a Better Agency, where we show you how to build an agency that can scale and grow with better clients, invest in employees, and, best of all, more money to the bottom line. Bringing his 25 plus years of expertise as both an agency owner and agency consultant to you, please welcome your host, Drew McLellan.


Drew McLellan: Hey everybody, welcome back to Build a Better Agency Podcast. This is one of my solo casts. This is just you and me hanging out, talking about something that I think is important for us to have a conversation about, for you to be thinking about, and hopefully for you to be taking some action on. Today this is one of a topics that some of you may have heard me talk about many times, and it’s one of those things where a lot of agency owners nod their head at me, and they act like they believe me and they agree, but I don’t see a lot of agencies taking action on this. And I think it’s really a critical point to making your agency as strong and successful as you can. What I want to talk about today is the idea that the reality is that when we talk about our agencies, the truth is whether we like it or not, we all look very much alike. Even if we think we’re standing out in a crowd, the truth is that we sound very much the same.


  So we preach USP or unique selling proposition or differentiation to all of our clients. Every agency I know talks to their clients about this, but the truth is most of us don’t do it for ourselves. It’s tougher to get noticed out there. And there are more and more competitors, you’re not just competing against agencies anymore. Now you’re competing against every media outlet, and you’re competing against in-house agencies. So it’s getting tougher and tougher. And the truth is we sound and look more and more alike. In many cases, the push to content has actually made this worse, because for most agencies, they take the easy way out with content and they write about generic topics and therefore they even sound more generic than they did before.


  According to research that we have done at AMI, 81% of the time clients are considering multiple agencies. So you really do have to be different than the other guys to be the one that gets the final nod. Agencies believe that they differentiate, but the truth is we really don’t. So think of it as a scale, and you tip the scale one way or the other, you either differentiate or you’re a commodity, and the more you are a commodity the more you have to compete on price, and we all know that that is not a winning game for agencies. Let me describe for you the ways that many of you describe yourselves and see if this sounds familiar. Remember, I’m hanging out with 200, 250 agencies a year, so I’m seeing this across the board, and if you recognize yourself in some of these phrases and you think they’re what makes you different, understand that everybody uses these phrases. See if any of these sound familiar.


  Full service, strategic, creative. We partner with our clients. We’ve been here for X number of years, we have a combined experience of over X years. We are not a traditional agency. We don’t do digital, we are digital. We’re nimble. We do good work for good people. Big market creative, small market price, or more marketing agnostic. We’ll use any tool that gets you to the results you want to get. You get the idea. The points of difference that we are listing are the same ones that everybody else lists as their points of difference, which by default means that we all look the same. It’s not just the small to midsize independent, so I don’t want you to feel like you’re the only ones out there who are doing that. A lot of the big agencies are sound very much the same. I did a quick scan of agencies like Wieden+Kennedy, and DDB, and Mullen, and every one of them has the word creativity in their tagline. So even they struggle with differentiating themselves.


  Our research shows us that when we profess to be good at everything clients and prospects simply don’t believe us. They know we can’t possibly be good at everything, especially at our size. A hundred people, 150 people, five people, whatever your size is, in today’s complicated marketing world, you cannot be good at everything. So you really do have to put a stake in the ground and say, “This is what we do, and here’s how we do it, and here’s how we’re different.” They know that we can’t be good at everything, and they are desperate to know what we actually are good at. They are looking for a best fit and you should be looking for a best fit too. One of the reasons why agencies don’t differentiate is because they’re so afraid of discouraging someone from picking up the phone or shooting an email that might have money in their pocket.


  But you and I both know that every dollar is not a good dollar. And we’ve talked about that before, but you’ve got to differentiate. You’ve got to tell these people what you’re good at so that you can attract the right fit or what I call sweet spot clients to you. When we claim we can do it all, they assume that we’re a generalist that isn’t particularly good at anything. Let me repeat that because I want you to hear it when we don’t differentiate, and we claim that we can do it all, the assumption that the prospects and clients make, is that we’re a generalist and that we are not particularly good at anything, that we’re pretty good at everything. You don’t want to be pretty good at everything, you want to be awesome at some things. We become a commodity, and then, unfortunately, it’s all about being the cheapest.


  Every agency struggles with this, we know that we need to say something, but we don’t want to suggest that we can’t serve anyone ever or serve everyone. Again. I’m calling bull on the every dollar is a good dollar. We know that’s not true. We’ve all had bad clients, clients that were a bad fit, clients that we couldn’t quite do the work they needed to do, or we had to outsource a bunch of it, or it took us forever to do because it wasn’t something we did every day. We’ve all had those bad clients and they’ve cost us money and time and energy, and sometimes even costs us staff. There is no bad client but there are definitely bad clients for us. We need to get better at identifying, spotting, and attracting those sweet spot clients. You absolutely have to do that, but it starts with understanding who you are as an agency and what you genuinely offer that’s unique. You have to get there.


  The stuff we make, other people make. So I don’t care how good your stuff is, it’s not enough, other agencies make stuff. So how are you really different? What is so true about us that it won’t change and we won’t compromise on it? That’s the question you need to be asking yourself. What is so true about us, that it won’t change and we won’t compromise on it? Ideally, when you figure that out, it will inspire your team, attract sweet spot clients that you can absolutely delight day in and day out, and it will allow you to make more money and be more profitable.


  A lot of this starts with understanding the values and beliefs that your agency is founded on. Your client has already decided. If you’re talking to the prospect, remember the prospect is doing the lion’s share of their shopping before they ever pick up the phone or shoot you an email. So they’re shopping between 65 to 75% of the time, they’re shopping and getting most of that buying decision done before they call you. So if they actually pick up the phone or shoot you an email, they’ve already determined that you can do the work. That’s not the hard part for them. They’ve already decided you’re competent. What they want to know is how and why you do the work. What makes you different? Everybody wants to do business with a company that stands for something that has values, that has a philosophy of how they do business, that has a reason for existing. So really, to quote Simon Sinek, as many of you love to do, “What is your why?” Why do you do this? Why do you work as hard as you do? How are you changing your little sliver of the world? Why does the agency need to be around? What would happen to the world if your agency, all of a sudden, wasn’t there?


  It all starts with where we draw our lines. What are our boundaries? What we value as an agency and how we define our purpose creates both our opportunities and our boundaries. What we value as an agency and how we define our purpose, creates both our opportunities and our boundaries, and we need both, we deserve both. Some agencies have tried this before, but it’s a tome, it’s like this whole book, or its pages and paragraphs defining who they are. And really, it needs to be just a few sentences that can be summed up in a statement of a belief or an attitude.


  I want to know who you are and what you’re all about. Ultimately can I like and trust you? Are we aligned? That’s what clients are wondering as they are walking through the new business process. Can I like and trust you? And are we aligned? Will we work well together? When we did the research, one of the things that the prospects talk a lot about is that chemistry piece, and you can answer some of those chemistry questions long before you actually sit in a room with them, by being very clear about what you value and how you conduct yourself in business. For your prospects, your agency’s positioning gives them confidence that you’re going to be a good fit. Remember, they’re under incredible pressure to make sure that they make a good buying decision.


  There’s a lot of scrutiny when a CMO or even a business owner hires an agency, the expectation is we’re going to get something for this expenditure that we’re making on this agency, and so it’s a big risk buying decision, and you want to do everything you can to take the risk out. You want to show them exactly who you are and how you work and why you work, so they can determine right upfront if you are a good fit or not. And honest to God, if you’re not a good fit, you do not want them as a client. I don’t care how much money they have sticking out of their pocket. It is going to cost you money in the end. This is one of those things where you know that I’m right, you have experienced it. It’s sort of like Thanksgiving dinner when you know, you should not have that second helping of stuffing, but you do anyway, because it looks so good in the moment, and then you have to lay down on the floor because you’re so full that you’re going to think you’re going to get sick. That’s what this is.


  You have all taken clients that you thought were going to be awesome because they had money hanging out of their pocket, but there was this nagging thing in the back of your mind, and you knew that maybe this was not a good idea, and you paid the price for it over and over again. By being really clear about who you are and what you’re all about, you can avoid that painful mistake, and you can avoid losing time, and money and energy, and staff.


  When you define who you are, and you’re really clear about who you are, and by the way, that definition also says who you’re not, and that’s equally important. But when you do this well, you attract the right clients. You attract the right employees. It helps drive you to positioning and niching your agency. It also resolves the strategic versus creative debate, every agency has it. Do you lean more heavily on the strategy side or the creative side? When you define who you are and what you believe, and how you do the work that answers that question, which quite honestly, many clients need to know. It also drives all of your client-facing strategies in terms of new business, in terms of how you talk about yourself, it should influence your content strategy, and really you do this with three tools. You do this by defining your mission, your vision, and your values.


  Let me tell you how I define each of those because there’s always a debate about what is mission versus vision. For me, mission is what you do best every day on behalf of your clients. What you do best every day on behalf of your clients is the mission. What do you deliver to them every single day? And the vision is what is the future like for the agency because you do what you do best every day? So again, mission is what you do best for clients every day, so this is to their benefit. The vision is what is the agency’s future like because you do what you do best every day. The values are those guiding principles and beliefs that help you decide how to behave on a daily basis. These are the governing principles, if you will, of your business.


  So let me give you an example. When I step away from my AMI role, and I step into my agency owner role at McLellan Marketing Group. McLellan Marketing Group’s mission is that MMG helps clients create a love affair with their customers. So what we’re saying is, what we do better than anybody is, we help our clients connect with their customers in a way that their clients love them, that they want to be with them all the time. They want to spend more money with them. They want to rave about them with their friends. So just like when you first met Mr. or Ms. Right and you are giddy about them and you couldn’t help talking about them to the point that your friends were nauseated at hearing about them, that’s what we do for our clients, is we make their customers giddy in love with them, and we do that better than anybody else.


  Our vision, so what the future is like for us as an agency, because of what we do best every day is that we are the Harley of agencies. That’s how we define our vision. What that means is that people are very happy to pay a premium price for us. People are very happy to wait for a long time to work with us because there is so much prestige in working with us over anybody else it makes them look cool to say that MMG is their agency versus anybody else. That they are happy to pay more and wait a while to work with us. That we are in demand, and that oftentimes if they can’t have a Harley, they don’t want a motorcycle at all, and in our world if they can’t work with MMG, they don’t want to work with anybody. That’s our vision of the future if we continue to deliver on the mission.


  Our core beliefs are very simple, they are five statements. First one is, passion cannot be ignored, and for us, that’s all about that we want to work with clients who are really passionate about the work they do, and we also want to work with coworkers and vendors, and partners who are excited and proud about the work that they do, and that you cannot ignore passion. When a business is really passionate about their customers and what they sell, it’s easy to help them be successful. Our second core belief is breakthrough thinking breeds breakthrough creative. So for us, that very clearly defines the strategy versus creative role that we believe that great strategy allows us to deliver great creative, but that strategy has to come first.


  The third belief for us is the guys in the white hats do win. As you know, our industry is often tainted by bad reputations or shady business practices, and this is our promise to ourselves and our clients that we will always treat them in an above-board, transparent, honest way. Our fourth belief is we take our work seriously, ourselves, not so much. We know that we’re not saving lives, and we also know that we are privileged to work in an industry where we can have a good time, so we make sure that we do that. We make sure we share that with our clients, that even when they’re with us and we are very serious about their business and their work, we can do that in a fun way. The last belief for us is we give back in big ways, and that’s about acknowledging our commitment to the community and serving non-profits, and doing those sorts of things.


  So those are our core beliefs, and those guide every business decision that we make. I will tell you that what it has allowed us to do, and those, by the way, have been our core beliefs for 21 years, and all of that has been in place since the very beginning, that we’ve tweaked the language a little bit, but the messages are exactly the same. But what it’s allowed us to do, it’s allowed us to retain our employees, it has allowed us to retain clients. Many of our clients have been with us almost the entire 21 years of our agency. And I’ve got employees that have been around 15, 16 years. It allows us to get a higher AGI and a higher profitability out of that AGI. But keep in mind that it is not about having a mission and a vision and values, it is really about sharing them, and most important, it is about living them. That’s what matters.


  Once you know who you are as an agency and what you believe in and you value, then we can look at the work you do and how it’s uniquely different, uniquely different, that sort of sounds like an oxymoron doesn’t it? Once we know who you are as an agency and what you believe in, and what you value, and what you will and won’t compromise on, then we can look at the work that you do and how it is equally unique. In my next solo cast, we will dig into that, we’ll dig into positioning and niching your agency, but for now, I really want you to spend some time defining what is your mission? What do you do better than everybody else every day on behalf of your clients? What is your vision? How is the world going to be different for your agency? What’s in it for your agency long-term if you deliver on that mission every day? What are the values or principles, or beliefs that guide your business decisions and the way you conduct yourself, both with your employees and your clients, and your community? Do that work, share it with your employees, share it with the world, and begin to attract just those clients who deserve to work with that kind of an agency.


  I will be back in a few weeks with another solo cast. I will be back next week, with another great interview with another great guest who’s going to help you build a bigger, better, stronger agency. As always, you can reach me at [email protected], if you have any questions about this podcast or what I’ve talked about. And if you’re loving this, I would really appreciate it if you would go to iTunes and Stitcher and leave a review you have no idea how much that helps the podcast. And make sure you subscribe so that you don’t miss an episode. I am here for you if you have any questions, and please, please, don’t just listen to this and put it aside, go and think about, and define your vision, and mission, and values, and see how quickly that begins to shape how you talk about your agency. I’ll talk to you soon.


Speaker 1: That’s all for this episode of Build a Better Agency, be sure to visit agencymanagementinstitute.com to learn more about our workshops and other ways we serve small to mid-sized agencies. While you’re there, sign up for our e-newsletter, grab our free e-book and check out the blog. Growing a bigger, better agency that makes more money, attracts bigger clients, and doesn’t consume your life is possible here on Build a Better Agency.