Episode 179:

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 presented by associates. I mean, I brought in speakers, I brought in… The media partners played a big role in this, I tapped into distributors, we did ride alongs with salespeople.

I mean, it was a pretty inclusive training regimen, right? And people sometimes say, “Well, gosh, we’re going to invest all this money in training, and then they’ll just split.” I go, “Well, you know what? That’s on you.” That’s a cultural discussion, all right? And maybe a financial discussion. But I said, “So don’t not train them and try to make a go of this, because [crosstalk 00:20:52]”

Drew McLellan:

Well, isn’t that that old expression is, the only thing more expensive than training people and having them leave is not training them and having them stay?

Doug Austin:

Exactly.

Drew McLellan:

Right?

Doug Austin:

Yes, that’s exactly right. Yeah. So yeah. And so training is a big pillar, and I’ll be honest, I haven’t seen anybody that I’ve worked with do it really well yet, because it just keeps getting de-prioritized. It really does. And until somebody can own it themselves, and really give themselves permission to own it, it gets deprioritized. So you cobble along and people wind up training themselves, which is not always great, right?

Drew McLellan:

Right. Well, and everyone [crosstalk 00:21:34] have a superstar and say, “Oh, well, that’s the shining example.” As opposed to recognizing, well, the other five who aren’t that could have been with the proper education.

Doug Austin:

Yeah, exactly. Exactly.

Drew McLellan:

And again, it all gets back to our earlier conversation of this is why the owner stays immersed in client work and quagmired in the day-to-day, because they look around they say, “Well, no one else can figure this stuff out but me.” Well, that’s because you haven’t taught them how.

Doug Austin:

That’s right. At my last group we were big on the whole centered on what’s your why, and what do you really-

Drew McLellan:

Sure.

Doug Austin:

And the other thing about agencies too, is they can get cliquey, and because we had a network of agencies, I had three agency cultures to put good talent inside. And that was fantastic. I mean, what freedom that gave me. But it also told me that we have a responsibility as leadership to honor the worth of every person that walks through the door, because every one of those people have a fantastic gift to share, and it’s up to us to make sure we put them in the right house. And by doing that, right? And making sure that they jived with the culture, they had an opportunity to thrive, and in that, our responsibility to teach them the tricks of the trade, right?

And so they could thrive, not only survive. And then ultimately, I start to intermingle some of these folks from one agency over to another. So now they’re bringing some of their best practices from over here over to this other one. It’s really interesting over a 10 year period to see how that had an effect. And it really did. Because when you have one agency, it’s one thing, and you’re great, you’re known for something. When have two, you got this brother, sister rivalry thing. Well, I’m going to do this better than they do. When you have three, and then your head starts to spin a little bit, right?

Like, “Oh, I don’t know that I need to keep up with all that. I think I’ll be this, or I’ll be that. I sort of silo down. But over time, and you and I both know this, and everybody in the agency business [inaudible 00:23:39] for more than five years knows this, that this whole thing changes every five or six. As they say, today’s innovation is tomorrow’s commodity, so you better not get too happy with or proud of yourself for what you achieve, because it’s going to be dead tomorrow.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah, absolutely. I want to talk a little more about this idea of having a culture of growth, but first, let’s take a quick break, and then we’ll come right back and dig into that. I want to take just a quick second and remind you that if you head over to the agencymanagementinstitute.com website, one of the things you’ll find there in our effort to support agency owners is some on-demand training. We know that many of you want to attend our live workshops, but for some reason, that doesn’t work out. Maybe you’re outside of the US, or maybe you have little kids and it’s tough to travel, or it may just be that our calendar and your calendar do not align.

And so what we’ve done is we now have three courses that we either regularly or occasionally offer as a live workshop. And now we’ve got them in an on-demand training version, so you can now find biz dev workshop, our agency new business blueprint course. You can also find our AE boot camp, and our most recent edition is the Money Matters workshop. So all of those are available. If you head over to the website and you go under training, you will see on-demand training under that tab. You can check out all three of those courses. And obviously, those are courses that you could take at your leisure. You can get through the whole thing in a weekend, which I don’t recommend, or you can space it out over time, you can do it individually, you can do it with your leadership team, whatever serves your agency best. We just want to make sure that you know that they are there and available for you. All right, let’s get back to the episode.

All right, we are back with Doug Austin. Before the break, we were talking a little bit about culture and education. And Doug a couple times already in the conversation has alluded to this idea of creating a culture of growth. So Doug, kind of define what you mean by that, and then talk to us a little bit about how does one go about creating it?

Doug Austin:

Yeah, that’s great. A couple of things on creating a culture of growth. I’d say first of all, you have to be open to living into and owning the space that you have permission to win. And we talked a lot about that earlier. Meaning that if you’re going to really grow, know what you’ve got, and know what you’re good at, and know where the opportunities lie for you to go get it. And then set out to assemble the right teams, train them up proper, and infiltrate the industries that have a need or desire for that. Couple things to keep in mind there. And this might even be a separate conversation, but as we set out to start sharing our gifts and expertise with the industries that were involved in, don’t look at it as sales.

I think it’s so many times people say, “Oh, well, we just need better sales, and we’d be hot, and we’d be off the charts.” And I always have to start by saying, “Hey, sorry guys, but you know we’re in the service business, right?” And services are bought, they’re not sold. They’re just not. I always do that old film thing where the trench coat guy opens it up and says, “You want to buy a watch?” Right? Like the kind of cheesy sales guy, right?

Drew McLellan:

Right, right.

Doug Austin:

And we’re not walking up to [inaudible 00:27:04] like, “Hey, you want to buy a marketing plan?” It’s a ridiculous thought, and we all know it. What we want is people to come to us, because they have seen what we have done or accomplished for others, and they want to be part of that. And that’s marketing of a type, right? So creating a culture of growth really is predicated on adopting an expectation of expertise, and I’ll define that a little further. And it’s really all rooted in a need to have trust and respect for all areas inside the agency. All of this ladders back to the why and the worth of all people, right? We all have a role, we all should be expected to be experts in what we do, so that we can honor everybody else’s in their roles. And we should do it with trust and respect, because let’s face it, this business is hard enough anyway. We don’t need somebody second guessing our abilities, right?

Drew McLellan:

Right.

Doug Austin:

And I say that in the same breath, saying, “Then make sure you’re doing the best that you possibly can.” So expecting expertise. Over the years I’ve just dissect or deconstructed this all the way down to trust and respect. And if we can start there, right? Then that says, “I expect you, creative leader, to be the final word on design thoughts, design questions, and all things production. How it actually gets out of here.” Great, I can disagree with you, but at the end of the day, your call. I expect you to own it. You’re accountable. Likewise, I will be responsible for all things client and strategy. Great. Good. You can expect from me that I’m going to do as good a job at understanding and doing those jobs right as I expect you to do yours. If we can do that, you don’t have to worry about my job, and I don’t have to worry about yours.

Let’s be professionals here. You do yours, I’ll do mine. We’re going to make you [inaudible 00:28:59]. So that’s the trust and respect, which leads us to expecting expertise. So how do we get expecting expertise and getting to that expertise, is creating this culture that says we’re constantly learning a new thing. Because here’s the thing, and we’ve all heard this, who… And we’re getting there… Well, I mean, hear we are in November. We’re at the end of the year, and we’re going, “Okay, now we made it another year.” Okay. God, that’s great. Okay, good, because you get to do it again next year, and you get to do it again next year-

Drew McLellan:

Right. And a little faster, please.

Doug Austin:

Yeah.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah.

Doug Austin:

Isn’t that the truth? It’s the constant need of innovation in services and optimizing processes and just how we do everything, frankly. And to be honest, the actual services that we offer, right? Are always under scrutiny, and they should be, right? We have to always be leaning into new thought, original perspective, bleeding edge perspectives on how to take… Our clients are expecting that from us. We’re the marketing and communication end of their strategy, we better be on top of the game. So to create a culture of growth means exactly that. It’s a lean in culture, not a lean back culture. There’s no time for rest. And I’m sorry, if that scares people who think, “Oh, well gosh, I don’t want to do that.” Well, then that’s okay. There’s plenty of folks who do, because it’s a very forward leaning situation.

And so that has to start at the top, right? And so the leadership has to really embrace that culture of growth. And to do that, they have to get out of their own way, because let’s be honest, you can’t run in the red line on the fast lane for 50 years. You just can’t. I mean, there’s some people that can, like you. You’re a Fast lane guy all the time. You’re out there, bleeding edge all the time. But most all the other agency guys [crosstalk 00:30:48]

Drew McLellan:

Sure, everyone but me can’t do it. I love the thought of that, despite the fallacies it’s baked in, but yes.

Doug Austin:

And so we have to just be real about getting out of our own way, but giving permission for others to boldly push in, right? So it has to start at the top, we have to expect expertise from everyone on the team, regardless of their role. We have to treat each role with trust and respect, because it all isn’t just hinging on the best creative, or the best strategy, or the most awesome execution, and the best digital analysis. It all has to work in harmony, or it doesn’t work at all. And I think I’ve seen some really great shops that cancer, and it’s a difficult one to eradicate. It can be done, but it usually requires exiting people. If you just don’t ever start there, right? We don’t have to be that competitive inside, we can be challenging as thought partners, but we shouldn’t be competitive inside.

Drew McLellan:

I often hear that marketing or agency life is a young person’s game. And I honestly don’t think it’s about chronological age, but I do think a lot of it has to do with when you’re worn out, and you don’t want to keep learning. That’s when I think the job gets really tough. But I have agency owners in some of our networks that are in their 60s, and they run circles around other people, because they just have this hunger, this curiosity to keep growing and learning. And they inspire that inside their shops. And so I think a lot of the culture of growth is around really about this understanding to what you’re saying is, part of having the expectation of expertise is understanding that expertise is a moving target. And that to continue to keep earning the badge, you have to keep growing and learning, because otherwise your badge stales. I probably have some old Boy Scout badges from somewhere, but that doesn’t mean I can still build a campfire, right?

Doug Austin:

Right. Right. Right.

Drew McLellan:

I think it’s about the hunger to keep evolving, and I think that’s one of the things that separates agency people from other people who do marketing on the client side, or on the media side. They’re not held to the same expectations that we are. They get to narrow down what they have to learn and what they have to know, where we really have to be pretty well versed in a lot of things.

Doug Austin:

Oh, it’s 100% agree. And there’s a fair amount of pioneering in there, right?

Drew McLellan:

Right.

Doug Austin:

Yeah, and to be honest, that’s when I shifted the nomenclature at the agency from business development to growth and innovation. When we really deliberately put forth to the agency that said, “We will be a culture of growth.” We already are, but I’m calling it into being as declaring it, right?

Drew McLellan:

Yeah.

Doug Austin:

I say from this day forward, this division is now called growth and innovation. And so that’s where I really got to formalize my training thoughts. And it was very helpful. And then the innovation part of it was not only in how we were creating products at the time, too, because we have a lot of product and menu innovation, but also innovative in how we look at our structure. That’s about the time that I started doing a pretty severe service audit each year. And it began with… This is pretty interesting for everybody to do. It’s an excellent exercise, and we all carry it around in our head anyway.

Think of a very simple matrix. Across the top you have every client that you service today. Down the left hand side is every service that those clients buy. Now fill in those Xes and Oes. And there are some clients that don’t buy all your services, so that’s potentially an opportunity, but sometimes not for anomaly reasons. Now draw a line under that. Now list all of the services for those same clients that we do not offer, that we know for a fact they buy from somebody else, right? That’s our growth opportunity space. And then below that, draw a line and predict what you think you’re going to need in the next five years, all right?

Now, go back and look at your people and say, “Okay, are we ready to either A, start to learn or buy into the service areas of what clients are buying today, but not from us, and also where they’re going?” Now, this is an interesting exercise when you do it on your own. It’s really revealing when you then survey your actual client vertical to find out what they think [crosstalk 00:35:29] overlay that on top of each other. And let’s say that’s the best $5,000 research report you haven’t done. I promise you that.

Drew McLellan:

Well, and again, you talk about… The beginning of our conversation, you talked about how do you show up demonstrating expertise? Well, if you’re literally the one doing research on the industry, and where they’re going, that’s a great way to demonstrate your expertise.

Doug Austin:

Yeah.

Drew McLellan:

And at least doing primary research and doing a report on that, and then being able to go to the trade shows and talk about it, and all of those sort of things. That’s a beautiful strategy that works time and time again.

Doug Austin:

Yep, yep. And we did exactly that for several years in a row. And what I’ll tell you, what it started to inform for us too, as an ESOP, we were in a pretty aggressive growth posture in terms of M&A and acquisition, and even mergers at some points. It starts to inform what kind of shops you want to go after, because here’s the thing, too, we’ve all heard this. Well, they were a great client last year, but man, their budgets are shrinking. And I’m thinking, “Well, their industry is growing, so.” Their budgets aren’t shrinking, they’re just shrinking with us, fellas, so let’s [crosstalk 00:36:39]

Drew McLellan:

They’re spending those dollars somewhere.

Doug Austin:

Yeah, so let’s go figure out where they’re spending and let’s get in that business.

Drew McLellan:

Right. Right.

Doug Austin:

That’s what’s great about a culture of growth, is every year we give ourselves permission to shed last year’s expertise and find a new coat to put on. And we can go after that, right? But if you wait four, five, six years, it’s very difficult and jarring and disruptive.

Drew McLellan:

Well, and now you’re playing catch up rather than really leading.

Doug Austin:

Oh, 100%. Now you’re in a survival game. Now you’re in [crosstalk 00:37:09]… We’re in the thriving, growing game, so yeah.

Drew McLellan:

Right, right. One last thing I want to ask you about. So as we’re talking about culture, I know you also talk about culture culprits. Tell us what that is, and the damage they do inside a shop.

Doug Austin:

Yeah, golly. I mean, I think we’ve all seen it, And at times, maybe even some of us have been it. It’s the thing that’s part of the culture that’s disruptive for any reason. Meaning lack of ability, lack of want. Somebody who’s just not doing their job, somebody who continues to make mistakes, but is not moved on or out of harm’s way. It could be the owner, right?

Drew McLellan:

Yeah.

Doug Austin:

It could be owner’s lack of insight and ability-

Drew McLellan:

Or passion, or energy.

Doug Austin:

Or compassion, and-

Drew McLellan:

Right. Yeah.

Doug Austin:

Any of that. And those are the hardest ones, right? It’s like any strategic breakdown. As we start to deconstruct the illness back to the culprit, and what we can get when things start going back to the same person… Or the same bottleneck, not even a person, it could be a process bottleneck. We can’t look away and pretend it’s going to get better, regardless of how hard it is to unseat that culprit. And so I say the work that it takes to identify the culprit isn’t nearly as hard as the work it’s going to take to make the change, right?

Drew McLellan:

Yeah, I think that’s the Achilles heel for a lot of agency owners. In fact, I just did a podcast on this. I think a lot of agency’s owners are not good at having the difficult conversations that come as a part of being a good leader. And so I think we put it off, I think we say that we’re doing it out of compassion for the other person, but really, we’re just passively aggressively dealing with it, as opposed to sitting down and having the candid conversation that we need to have about changes that need to be made. And if the changes can’t be made, then we may have to go in different directions. And I think that’s a real challenge for a lot of owners.

Doug Austin:

Oh, 100% agree. 100% agree. And it manifests in so many ways too, right? Passive aggressive, over aggressive, no compassion at all, greed. All kinds of things. Blocking people from opportunity when they know darn well they could have handled it on their own. But the ones that are easier to ferret out is when they’re among the ranks, right?

Drew McLellan:

Right.

Doug Austin:

Because then you can give them an opportunity… And I always do say this, because people say, “Oh, well, then you just go fire them.” [inaudible 00:40:02] well, I don’t know about that. I believe everybody should get one extra shot. But everybody has to participate in that change. But they might just be in the wrong place, and I think we’ve all seen this. Okay, one of the most common is this. Awesome, creative rockstar comes all the way up through the ranks, probably even makes it to ACD or CD, right?

Comes a time we’re going to pass the baton, somebody who’s going to be the GM or the president or takeover or we’re going to split, we’re going to have two agencies now. Whatever. You’re going to take one, I’m going to take one. And all of a sudden his job’s not fun anymore. I didn’t want to run an agency, I wanted to be solely involved in the creative process. I wanted to [crosstalk 00:40:51] young minds. And it’s literally [crosstalk 00:40:55]

Drew McLellan:

Or, I’m a great art director or writer, but I have no business leading a team, right?

Doug Austin:

That too. So yeah, even at that point, right? Designers bumping up or art directors bumping up. It’s like [inaudible 00:41:06]. And to be honest, if there’s a personal desire for growth, then they think yeah, I’ll take it. I’ll try it. And they probably don’t even know they can’t or don’t want to. That’s our job as the leaders, to say, “Okay. Hey, you know what? We love you over here, but this is it for you. Let’s keep you over here and let’s help you expand and grow your career in a different way.” And that is up to us, [inaudible 00:41:32], because they’re not going to come up with that idea.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. And I think a lot of times what the agency owners forget from their days of being part of the rank and file is the damage that happens as those culprits are allowed to ramble around through the agency and bump up against other people and infect them with either their disagreement of how the agency is being run, or they’re disgruntled about this or that, and it really… It’s a very infectious thing that can take an entire agency down faster than we think.

Doug Austin:

Oh, 100% agree. 100% agree. And I would say the most unlikely culprit that I have seen in recent years is absenteeism. And what happened was, and I’ve seen it in two separate places in two very different scenarios, but the same culprit, and it was absenteeism. They both felt like the agency was in good hands with others, and it was not. And what happened was they really underestimated the value of their daily leadership presence. And neither of them were big headed people, which is why I think they thought it was okay to go and do other things, right? Thought it was under control. Well, no. I mean, it was not long before they both were in a death spiral, and sadly, I think, at this point… Well, one of them is barely hanging on, and the other is completely restructuring with another group, so that’s just as viable a culprit as a bad apple in the barrel.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. Yeah, I think you’re right.

Doug Austin:

Yeah.

Drew McLellan:

Hey, this has been fascinating, as I knew it would be. If folks want to learn more about you, I know you write a lot about agency life and offer good counsel, where can they find more of your thinking and writing?

Doug Austin:

Yeah, great. Well, so on my website, which is Austin amplifies, that’s plural, .com. Shoot me a note, I’ll get you signed up for… I send out monthly or so just thoughts on different topics, everything from things we talked about today to how to make the most of a trade show, what do you really look for when you’re hiring somebody? How to stay away from a bad RFP, all kinds of good stuff like that. Or they can drop me a line at [email protected], or on my cell anytime, and it’s 314-239-0578. I love to talk to agency folks, it’s what I do.

Drew McLellan:

Awesome. Thanks so much for taking the time out and sharing your expertise. I think people are probably nodding their head and jotting some notes, and I’m hoping that they’re going to take you up on your challenge of really figuring out how to define where they have permission to win, and how to build learning portals around that, so that not only an owner and a couple of the senior people can show up like experts, but that everybody can. Because I think that’s the name of the game today.

Doug Austin:

Yeah, I think so. Well, I’ve enjoyed being here. Thank you, Drew.

Drew McLellan:

You bet. Thanks again for joining us.

Doug Austin:

Yeah.

Drew McLellan:

All right guys, that wraps up another episode of Build a Better Agency. Thanks for listening in. We’ll have all Doug’s contact information in the show notes so you can track him down. Also, as always, if you’re wondering what AMI is up to, swing over to the website, agencymanagementinstitute.com, and you can find everything about our online courses, our workshops, our networks, our coaching. All that sort of stuff. And please remember that you make me happy when you leave a rating and review, so we are constantly trying to make sure that agencies know that we’re out here, that we’re sharing this information. And one of the ways we do that is by continuing to show up on iTunes’ and Google and Stitcher’s lists, and a lot of that happens because of ratings and reviews. I promise you we read every one, we’re grateful for them, and I’m around if you need me. You know how to get ahold of me. Just [email protected] Otherwise, I will see you next week. Thanks for listening.

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 mid sized agencies. Don’t forget to subscribe today so you don’t miss an episode.