Episode 179

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The number one barrier to growth for agencies in 2019 is staffing. Agencies are struggling to find and keep good talent. And that conversation always leads to the topic of culture. When we think about culture – we often think about the fun stuff – parties, bonuses, and recognizing people for going above and beyond for clients.

All of that is super important but it is also equally critical to instill a culture that seeks, celebrates, and rewards growth. What are the attributes of a growth culture – and how do you make sure your agency has it?

A longtime practitioner in this area of creating a growth culture inside your agency is my guest on this episode: Doug Austin. In this episode, we talk about why that is the key to, in Doug’s words, “having permission to win that business.”

Doug has been doing agency work for many years and now spends his time as a consultant, working with agency owners and leaders to create a culture of growth in their business. We’re going to dig deep into what a growth culture means and how to get it.

What You Will Learn in This Episode:

  • The steps of a four-tiered plan for growth and innovation
  • Why it is important to know your client’s business inside and out
  • How to build training in the industries you serve into your overall training program
  • How to write a brief that makes sense to your client
  • Best practices for setting up training for agency employees
  • Creating a culture of growth
  • Building a culture based on the worth of all people and doing the best work you can
  • The connection between continuous learning and a culture of growth
  • How to perform a service audit of your agency
  • Dealing effectively with culture culprits

The Golden Nuggets:

“To demonstrate your authority in a field, figure out where the points are, figure out what the opinions are, and then have one yourself.” – Doug Austin Click To Tweet “If you’re going to grow, know what you’ve got, know what you’re good at, and know where the opportunities are. Then you can assemble the right team for the work.” – Doug Austin Click To Tweet “We need to stop talking about sales and biz dev, and start talking about growth and innovation.” – Doug Austin Click To Tweet

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Ways to Contact Doug Austin:

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, now on our third year of brand new insights on how small to midsize agencies survive and thrive in today’s market. We’ll show you how to grow and scale your business, attract and retain the best talent, make more money, and keep more of what you make. 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 with another episode of Build a Better Agency. If you’ve been around for a while, if you are a regular listener, or you are a member of one of our peer groups, or hung out at any of our workshops, you know that I am a big fan and a big believer in agencies really understanding where their expertise lies, and really being a specialist rather than a generalist. And so today’s guest, I think, is going to lean into that idea a little bit. The way he refers to it is he talks about the areas or the verticals in which we have permission to win, meaning that we’ve earned the right to be there. And I think as the business gets more competitive, as so much of our work, our output, our deliverables gets commoditized, and so there’s so much price pressure that the agencies that I know that are not really being undermined by all of that, are the agencies that have established a true depth of expertise in a niche or niches, and really can speak to that in a way that most agencies they compete against cannot.

These are the agencies that talk about the business of their clients business, rather than the marketing tactics and strategies. Do they boil down to the marketing tactics and strategies eventually? Of course they do, but they’re able to stay at a much more elevated level with their clients, especially when they’re talking at the C-suite level, which is where we all want to be. But they’re able to stay at that elevated level for much longer, because they know the right trends to talk about, because they know the right questions to ask, the right pressure points that that business owner is facing, because they understand, they as an agency, really understand the industry. And so that’s really where we’re going to focus our attention today with my guest.

So today’s podcast guest is a guy named Doug Austin, and Doug comes to us with years and years of agency experience. In the last half of his career, he has spent doing biz dev for agencies, and he’s now retired. He’s doing some coaching and some consulting, but he brings this wealth of experience and expertise to the conversation. And one of the things that I think you’re going to find fascinating is he thinks we should stop thinking about it and talking about it as sales or biz dev. And he thinks instead, we should talk about it as growth and innovation, and that that really is an attitude that we have to bake inside the entire agency, that we have to create a culture around this constant improvement, this constant growth.

Not just growth in terms of size, or billings, but also in our personal and professional growth, and how we can serve the agency better. So this is going to be a fascinating conversation. I can’t wait to pick Doug’s brain on behalf of all of us, so let’s dive into the conversation. Without any further ado, Doug, welcome to the podcast. Thanks for joining us.

Doug Austin:

Hey, thanks. Glad to be here.

Drew McLellan:

I gave a little bit of history background, but just give everybody a sense of what the key roles you’ve played inside agencies throughout your career.

Doug Austin:

Yeah. No, good question. Right, so I started out in account service, and this would have been in the mid to late ’80s, and from there went all the way through account service ranks. And this was at a time, by the way, when account service also met [inaudible 00:04:01].

Drew McLellan:

Right.

Doug Austin:

And so morphed into a bit of a more formal planning role in some of my agencies, and that was fun. And from there, shifted over to a innovation role, which was a lot of fun. And that would be product and menu innovation as in food sector, mostly. And then lastly, into business development, and ultimately, growth and innovation to bring it all back together.

Drew McLellan:

I know that one of the philosophies that you hold dear, is that the agency owner at some point in time has to get out of the way when it comes to strategy, biz dev, growth of the agency, so talk a little bit about that.

Doug Austin:

Yeah, sure. No, I think… And let’s use biz dev. Well, actually any of them, right? I mean, at some point, if the agency is defined by the person, then that’s as big as we’re going to get. That bottleneck, that’s an eventuality. It’s going to happen. We can only get so far. In fact, I just got done working with a young agency owner in the south east. And he said, “I don’t know if I can do this much longer.” And I’m thinking, “Oh, gee, man. You’re half my age in this career thing. If you’re out of juice now, you’re in trouble.” Right? But he touches everything, and I said, “Not for nothing, but you got to go. You got really good people, you got really smart people.” He goes, “Why? I don’t want to not show up. It’s disrespectful.”

I said, “No, I tell you what’s going to be disrespectful is when all your good people leave, because there’s no career opportunity, because you couldn’t get out of the way.” And I said, “If you really want to listen to the white hair guy, take a minute, and take a flyer on one. See how they do. But you got to get out of the way.” And the same goes for new business. If they show up in the pitch, right? They’re expected to work on the business, they’re going to expect them to have every answer, right? And let’s be honest, if you’re running the agency, day-to-day, all day, and you’re in the pitch, you probably weren’t in the ditch, didn’t get them ready for it.

Drew McLellan:

A differing opinion, I’m curious about this, is I talk to a lot of agency search consultants, who are typically working with bigger agencies, placing bigger brands, and they’re saying, “Agency doesn’t win it if the owner is not in the room.”

Doug Austin:

Okay. Well, I can just go from my own experience, and I’ll just lay it down, right? For the past 10 years at the last group that I was at, which was actually a network of three agencies and an innovation firm, which we built, right? And I was part of helping build that. The owner, legacy owner, the name on the door was in exactly none of the pitches. All right. And we grew that, from the time I arrived in 2008, from 54 people, to the time I left in ’16, 175, and billings that were quadrupled, so I don’t know. I mean, [crosstalk 00:06:53]

Drew McLellan:

What did that conversation look like when you were standing in front of the room and the owner wasn’t there? How did you explain that?

Doug Austin:

Yeah, everybody asks me that, says, “So, how do you intro? How do you intro into the pitch?” And let’s just set the stage. It’s a full blown RFI, RFP down to the [inaudible 00:07:09] live competitive [crosstalk 00:07:11], right? And I walk up and I say that canned, thanks for having us. I know you’re about to look at three or four fantastic groups right now, and I will tell you that what we’ve assembled today is the best of what we’ve got. And I want to let you know that right now, my role in this is to facilitate the right talent, the right resources, and the right thinking against what you’ve laid in front of us. And I want to let you know that Dennis, which was his name, sends his best and in fact, he couldn’t be here. Here’s a brief video. And he always was the first person beyond me. I’m the emcee. I was always the emcee. Whether I built the strategy or not, I didn’t deliver it, and neither did Dennis.

Drew McLellan:

Right, because you weren’t going to be delivering it day in and day out, right?

Doug Austin:

No.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah.

Doug Austin:

And because if I got encumbered with a client, I couldn’t grow the agency.

Drew McLellan:

Right. Right. Well, I think that’s the challenge whether you’re a biz dev person on the roster, or you’re the owner. You’ve got to make it very clear that you’re not the one who’s going to be doing the work.

Doug Austin:

100%. And I think that from first phone call, from first email, it’s established, my role is growth and innovation. My role is not lead planner, lead innovator, CEO, its growth and innovation. My job is to get the right picks. And so it’s okay. Transparency and upfront.

Drew McLellan:

Right. I know that you talk a lot about that agencies should focus on getting new clients or new work in areas or verticals that, in air quotes, we have permission to win at. Talk a little more about that.

Doug Austin:

Yeah. No, that’s great. Yeah, that’s really how I look at it. It’s where do we have, in the air quotes, permission to win? And that is the platform I speak from, because I think that so often, I think we’ve all been in this conversation. Oh, I’d really love to have ticket [inaudible 00:09:04] Indian Motorcycle. Fantastic, me too, man. I love it. Beautiful brand, beautiful iconography, fantastic design. You know what? We don’t know anything about the motorcycle business. We don’t know anything about a dealer network, the three tiered distribution. We don’t know anything about it other than we love the brand like everybody else.

And so I said, “You know what? We’re not going to waste their time. I’m sorry, I’ll buy you a motorcycle if we win the next frozen chicken account, but we’re not going to go after it. We have nothing to say, we have no permission to win that.” And that’s where that comes from, all right? And so where we start drilling in of, so where do we have permission to win? Where we have permission to win is where we are experts in our field, where we have really spent the time, developed a bench strength, created a presence in the verticals and industries we’re in that we’re seen as experts. There we have a permission to win.

Drew McLellan:

And how, in today’s world, how do you think agencies demonstrate that permission to win? How does an agency let the world know that they have that expertise?

Doug Austin:

Yeah, good. That’s a good question. And it’s where we usually start our conversation on my second of four platforms in my overall BD approach, which is to say, for the purpose of marketing our expertise to gain new business, we’ve really got to do two things first. We got to make sure we have enough people trained to speak about it properly, eloquently, and with authority and confidence, right? And then secondly, we’ve got to be in the industry. We have to be part of another air quote. You’ve got to be part of the conversation here, right?

And it’s not hard to determine what the conversation is to be honest, right? You can look at the agenda for the top four shows or associations or conferences in the vertical that you’re in and know exactly what the conversation is. And so let’s get involved, right? Good old fashioned homework man, right? Got to do the work, figure out where the points are, figure out what the opinions are, and then have one yourself, and then get to work publishing, speaking and being present in the industry in a way that you never thought you needed to.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. You said you have a four tiered plan, BD plan. What are the tiers?

Doug Austin:

Yeah, very simply. And this is one the [inaudible 00:11:22], really. This is where the [inaudible 00:11:24] comes in, right? It’s like, “We got to take care of what we got first.” Right?

Drew McLellan:

Right.

Doug Austin:

And yeah, easy to say. And let’s be honest, that’s where the leaky hole in the bucket usually is. And then there’s new business, which is what everybody thinks is the answer to all of it, right? But that’s not part of it. That’s their training.

Drew McLellan:

Okay, so take care of what you’ve got, and at AMI, one of the things we teach is that 70% of your net new revenue year over year needs to come from existing clients. So absolutely, biggest new business opportunity are the clients you already have. Number two is go out and get biz, right?

Doug Austin:

Yeah, right.

Drew McLellan:

Okay. Number three, you started to say, was…

Doug Austin:

Yeah, so three, training. And I mentioned this just a second ago, but the training is so key, because the training allows me now to not have… It goes all the way back to that original question, does the owner have to be in on everything? No, not really. I expect everybody else to be experts, as well, so the training is really, really, really important. And there’s this whole notion of expecting expertise from everybody you work with, and make sure everybody has a role, no matter how big your shop is. If you’ve got 300 people, you can really spread it around. If you got 13, you’ve got to really be choosy about what you’re going to own. And then the last part is being involved in the industry, so that you can be part of that conversation.

And being involved in the industry doesn’t mean necessarily you have to be on the podium speaking, or on the panels, or the keynote speaker, or things like that. But you do need to be present, you do need to be networking at those things, because guess what, first of all, just by the mere fact that you’re at the show, that means your clients are probably there. Or clients that you want to have, right? If your clients are there and you’re not there, I always tell people this and kind of creeps them out. There’s usually a guy like me, just like me, looking right at your client saying, “Hey, where’s your guy? How’s business?” Hey, I’m sorry, it’s kind of creepy, but it’s true, right?

Drew McLellan:

Absolutely.

Doug Austin:

I mean, that’s how we get it. And because let’s be honest, timing is half of it, right? I mean, just being in the right place at the right time. And if you’ve trained up well, you feel confident enough to have a conversation at a lot of these things, you’ll actually engage, so it all is interrelated.

Drew McLellan:

But let’s talk a little bit about the training regime. I know that that for you is a big component of how you think an agency stays relevant and successful, so what does that look like, do you think, for an agency?

Doug Austin:

Yeah. No, that’s great. You’re right. I mean, I do. I’ve published on this before. And so there’s all kinds of reasons why training is so important. And you have to formalize it. And again, I’ll tell you, we’ve all got 10 jobs to do when we’re at the shop, right? Which is why if you can afford it, and someone in your agency wants to be in charge of growth and innovation, support them. Push them up and think about these four platforms. And the training part is one of them. And it starts with really, honestly understanding the verticals where you have permission to win, or want to get to, right? Which would be the strategic adjacencies of those in which you are in today, right? Understand what you need to know about those. We have to understand the business of our clients business, right? To be an expert, I not only have to really understand all the functional technical parts of marketing communications, that’s the given, right?

Drew McLellan:

Right.

Doug Austin:

That’s sort of the ingredients on the table for the chef to make a fantastic soup. To make a fantastic soup, you’ve got to know all the right ways to slice and dice and do it. So being experts and understanding the business for a client’s business starts with really breaking it down and studying the same things that they do, right? If it’s a food service agency, let’s say. First of all, you’ve got to understand all the segments and channels and how the broker network works, and how the sales people get compensated, how the distributors work, how the operators work, what the patrons are looking for, different government regulations, subsidies, commodity reimbursements, all that stuff.

And when you start talking like that to somebody who runs an ad agency, they go, “Whoa. Dude, I went to the agency side, not the client side.” I said, “Hey, that’s cool. You know what? You could make ads. I’m building brands, you can make ads. You pick. What do you want to do?” I mean, by the time you get to the big table, and when I’m talking to big table, we need the bigger budgets. There’s a higher expectation of expertise and knowledge than simply the marketing communications aspect of it. And so [crosstalk 00:15:49]

Drew McLellan:

Well, and I think it also helps you avoid being commoditized, right? So if they’re talking to four agencies, and three of them are talking about marketing tactics, and you’re talking about the business challenges and the trends in the industry, and how you can help them offset the fewer people drinking milk, or whatever the topic is, now all of a sudden, they want to have a conversation with you.

Doug Austin:

Oh, 100%. I mean, I think the confidence that’s exuded by that just says, “These folks know where to spend the money in the right [crosstalk 00:16:21].” Right?

Drew McLellan:

Right.

Doug Austin:

They understand my objectives, they get my KPIs, they know how I’m compensated, they know how to navigate through the sales division. This will be easier.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah.

Doug Austin:

100%.

Drew McLellan:

So how do you build it? So if we agree training, it matters, and it’s not just training on how to do agency stuff, but it’s really about training… Because what I think what I’m hearing you say is, really where the training becomes critical is here, it’s time to learn everything you need to know about the industries that we serve.

Doug Austin:

That’s right. That’s right. It’s the understanding the business of the business. The way to get started right, it’s a couple of things. First of all, you’ve got to understand what you’ve got, because you’re right, there are two aspects. There’s the functional side, and then there’s the expertise side. On the functional side, that’s all the usual suspects. It’s all the services we offer. But on the functional side, it’s going to be the most important portions of that vertical that you’re in, that your clients tap into for today. Right?

Drew McLellan:

Right.

Doug Austin:

So identifying, right? Where to start the curriculum probably begins with the… I have five key ones, right? How to make money in the agency business. Because before you do that, you really don’t have anything else to talk about.

Drew McLellan:

Right.

Doug Austin:

Right? Then it’s really about how to work with your expertise in your vertical of choice. Meaning, what are you going to do with this knowledge when you get out there, right? Third is really a lot about… And again, back to the function about how to write a proper brief so that it makes sense to the client, because here’s the problem, I think, too, right? It’s like we’ll write briefs sometimes on behalf of our clients, and then try to get them to approve it, and they don’t see any of their business objectives written in there anywhere.

While they see our tactical execution, and they reluctantly go along, because they don’t know to expect better. But once you demonstrate how it ties back exactly to either a brand, or a corporate, or better, both, right? Goal or KPI. It’s a whole lot easier to start selling through your briefs. Tying it back into the functional aspects of what we do, right? Is where it really starts to make sense. And so there’s probably 15 or 20 of those classes that you can come up with, and then you simply set up, like we had the fill in your blank, name of your agency, university and [inaudible 00:18:42].

We had a lot of fun with it. I was really surprised the younger associates really took a lot of… I don’t know why I was surprised, I suppose I would have been too, very proud to work my way through the curriculum, right? To be able to say, “I’ve mastered how to make money at the agency, because I’ve gone through, and I’ve actually taught it now. I realize the implications of an error or, finishing a job a week early, or whatever it might be.” Right?

Drew McLellan:

Yeah.

Doug Austin:

It really is really tailored to your verticals, but the key part that, regardless of what kind of work you do, is tying it back into the functional aspects, so that it actually leads in.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. Typically, in an agency, who owns that responsibility to put together that university? Is that the biz dev person? Is that HR? Who makes that happen?

Doug Austin:

Yeah, that’s a great question, because that’s usually where it doesn’t happen.

Drew McLellan:

Right, of course. Everyone thinks it’s a great idea, and then they look around the table and go, “Well, who has time to do that?”

Doug Austin:

Yeah. [crosstalk 00:19:42].

Drew McLellan:

Right, right.

Doug Austin:

Right? I wind up having HR… There’s a bunch of onboarding that has to happen too, so that’s training, but how to fill out an expense report in a job form is not the same.

Drew McLellan:

Right, right, right.

Doug Austin:

So fine, they go do that. I will tell you, I took it on myself in the growth and innovation role, and I had help there. I mean, I had other people that were on my team, so we were able to do that. Because there’s a decent amount of coordination, right? But I’ll tell you what, it turned out exactly how I needed it to turn out. I had dedicated space nothing but for training. And by the way, the curriculum doesn’t have to be written and present