Episode 380

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With a heavy heart, I’m recording this week’s solocast to commemorate the life of a cherished and respected team member of AMI, Craig Barnes. I have known Craig for 25 years, and we became great friends and colleagues over our time together as fellow agency owners.

I want to use this solocast as an opportunity to honor the legacy Craig left behind and share with you all some of the core values he taught me over our long time working together, the most important one being to lead with love.

Whether you were part of his family, community, colleague, or client, Craig always made sure that people knew he loved them. He was never afraid to shower others with love and celebrate their wins in life, no matter how big or small. He did everything in a big way, whether that was making a huge business decision or taking up a new hobby — and he wasn’t afraid to go after it with genuine, whole-hearted passion.

I’m heartbroken to be recording this episode. Still, I hope this allows everyone the chance to reflect on his incredible life and legacy and encapsulate everything that Craig taught us in the AMI community.

A big thank you to our podcast’s presenting sponsor, White Label IQ. They’re an amazing resource for agencies who want to outsource their design, dev, or PPC work at wholesale prices. Check out their special offer (10 free hours!) for podcast listeners here.
lead with love

In This Episode:

  • How Craig Barnes became a part of my life and the AMI community
  • What we can learn from Craig’s life and professional life
  • Keep evolving
  • If you’re going to do it, do it big
  • Strategy is critical
  • There is no substitute for integrity
  • The more you teach, the more you learn
  • Lead with love

“A big part of the business is really just loving the people that we serve. And Craig had that in spades.” @DrewMcLellan Click To Tweet
“Sometimes it's okay to be genuinely passionate about something, go all in, and just move all the chips into the middle of the table.” @DrewMcLellan Click To Tweet
“Craig led with love in every aspect of his life. I don't think anybody that Craig loved wondered if they were loved. And I don't think anybody that ever worked for or worked with Craig didn't feel that affection and that love.” @DrewMcLellan Click To Tweet
“There is no substitute for living a life of integrity and honoring yourself and the people around you by being the best version of yourself, and a person of great character like Craig was.” @DrewMcLellan Click To Tweet
“Go out of your way to lead with love. Notice what opens up, what it does to the people around you, and what it does to your own soul and heart. That would make Craig very happy.” @DrewMcLellan Click To Tweet

Ways to contact Drew:


Speaker 1:

If you’re going to take the risk of running an agency, shouldn’t you get the benefits too? Welcome to Agency Management Institute’s Build a Better Agency podcast presented by White Label IQ. Tune in every week for insights on how small to mid-sized agencies are surviving and thriving in today’s market. We’ll show you how to make more money and keep more of what you make. We want to help you build an agency that is sustainable, scalable, and if you want, down the road sellable. With 25-plus years of experience as both an agency owner and agency consultant, please welcome your host, Drew McLellan.

Speaker 2:

Hey, everybody. Drew McLellan here from Agency Management Institute back with you with another episode of Build a Better Agency. This is one of my solocast. So as you know, every fifth episode, no guests, just me and you talking about something that’s on my mind or something that I know is on a lot of your minds that I want to address or teach to, or talk about at least. And this episode, I am recording this on Wednesday, January 11th. You guys will hear it on the 16th, I think, for the first time if you’re listening in real time. But if you are a part of the AMI community, if you get our newsletter, if you follow us on social, if we have a connection somewhere, odds are… Earlier this week, you saw my announcement that AMI team member and a super good friend of mine, Craig Barnes passed away, very suddenly and very unexpectedly on January 6th.

And so as you might imagine, I’ve been thinking about Craig a lot. Craig and I go way back. So as many of you know, before I owned AMI, it was called something different, and it just had a couple peer groups, but I was a member of one of the peer groups. So in essence, I was a client of my own company before I owned my own company. And in my peer group, we’re a group of really amazing agency owners, and one of them was Craig Barnes. So I have literally known Craig for 25 years, 20, 25 years. So we first were peers and we’re in this peer group together. And then when I bought AMI, Craig became a client because he was stayed in the group. And then as Craig was winding down his agency and starting to downsize it… And we’ll get into some of the reasons why that happened, he had some time on his hands.

And it was a time that AMI was really expanding. And one of my rules for AMI is anybody who works at AMI has to have both the head and the heart for the business. And what I mean by that is they have to have owned an agency for 10 or 15 years. They have to have done that really successfully, and they have to be part of the AMI ecosystem. They have to know all of the best practices and the benchmark numbers, and all of those things, so that they can speak to those as they either coach or facilitate, or teach, or whatever they’re doing. That’s the head part. But the heart part is our core value. We have multiple values, but for me, the lead value for AMI is that we lead with love, that we meet our clients where they are, that we care about them as human beings, that we are not talking down to them or making them feel like they’re failing or not doing all the things they could when they’re busting a hump.

And so for me, a big part of the business is really just loving the people that we serve. And Craig had that in spades. I saw that as a peer group member. I saw how he talked to the other peer group members and mentored them, and coached them, and some days, consoled them. And so I offered him an opportunity to do some coaching. Eventually, he started facilitating the virtual peer groups and the key exec groups, and became a really critical part of a lot of agency owners and leaders’ lives. He was a great mentor. A lot of you have been emailing me about Craig. And the words that I keep hearing over and over are mentor, sounding board, cheerleader, father figure, confidant, that was Craig. And so we’re less than a week away from finding out that he passed away. Again, as I said, it was very unexpected and very sudden.

So he has been really heavy on my heart this week as I have been talking to his wife. And I know that his family was going through the process of planning a memorial service and just getting comfortable with the reality that he was gone, and of course, talking to all of you about him as well. And so I had a different topic that I was going to cover in this solocast, and I’ll probably pick it up and do it in my next solocast. But there are a lot of lessons to be learned from Craig Barnes’ life for all of us, certainly as business owners, business leaders, agency people, and just human beings. So I’m hoping you’ll indulge me, and I promise you, there’s going to be value in this for you too. There are teachings that I want you to understand and know that came from his heart. But it’s also, I guess, my way of memorializing him and remembering him, and trying to capture a little bit of what he meant to me personally and professionally.

So there’s some lessons that I think Craig’s life and Craig’s professional life as an agency owner can teach all of us. And I just want to talk through some of those with you. So the first one is keep evolving. Craig started in the television business, so he was a television producer, and then he got into the agency business. A lot of people moved from media to agencies, and Craig was one of those. And when I met him, he had an agency of almost 100 people. It was multiple locations. They were just crushing it. They were working in several different industries. They actually had offices in different states, and he was managing all of that. And then they had a couple tough years, and he pivoted, and he really moved the agency from being a traditional creative shop to being more of a strategic shop.

He got smaller, the clients they worked with were much more strategic than they were media-based, and he kept evolving his business. And that’s a good reminder for all of us. I don’t care how long you’ve been doing this. I don’t care if you’re a 20-year veteran or a two-year veteran, the reality is your business has changed. Clearly, we can look back at COVID and say, “Okay, that changed my business. That changed the workforce. That changed how we work.” But even before COVID, there were recessions. There were downturns in business. There was embezzlement in your agency. There was a key employee that left and took your biggest client. There are all kinds of things, both external and internal that force us to keep evolving. And if we don’t keep evolving, if we don’t keep reinventing the agency and rethinking about how we can best serve our clients, then pretty soon we’ll become obsolete. We are no longer relevant.

And one of the things that Craig was really great at was being relevant, and making sure that he stayed on top of the game, and that he paid attention to market trends, and what clients were saying, and new technologies. He never shied away from learning new things because it allowed him to keep evolving his agency. And that, I think, is a super important lesson for all of us. Another lesson that I think Craig taught really brilliantly was, if you’re going to do it, do it big. That was a mantra of Craig’s, and I don’t know if you ever said it out loud, but he certainly lived it. So certainly, he did it. Like many of you, the risk of owning an agency or working in the agency world, there are inherent risks in the profession that we’ve chosen.

And Craig went after those risks in a big bad way. He tackled them. He conquered them, and he didn’t shy away from hard things, but he also did the things that he loved in a big way. So one of the things that you may not know about Craig is he was an accomplished chef. He loved to cook. He loved to entertain. And so he decided he wanted to become a better cook. And so, rather than taking a local cooking class or doing some things online, he took… I think it was a monthlong, but it was many weeks. It was three or four weeks. He took a monthlong course. He flew to Italy. He lived in this house with three or four other people who also had this commitment to learn how to cook in this Italian villa or house with a woman who was a chef.

And every day, they cooked all day long. And he learned all kinds of different ways to cook mostly Italian food. But he just was so immersed in what he loved that he did everything in a big bad way. He’s a great family man. He adored his wife Kelly. He had two kids that he loved. He loved both of their spouses. But what Craig loved more than anything were the grandkids. He just soaked them up and in a big bad way. So he had regular FaceTimes as the kids got older, and he created all kinds of opportunities to spend time with these kids, and to really form a bond and a relationship with them. He wasn’t a occasional grandparent. He was on the scene, either physically or virtually, on a regular basis. He was just a part of their daily life. And he really just believed that if it mattered to you, you should do it all the way, and you should do it with a level of excellence that you can be happy with.

And I think about how many different places that we can apply that lesson in our life, both personally and professionally. But if this matters to you, then going at it big and celebrating the passion you have around something by really, really just going all in. I think it’s something we’re so careful today. We’re so hesitant. We don’t want to offend anyone, we don’t want to appear too large in a room. We don’t want to act like or look like we are all that. And you know what? Sometimes it’s okay to just be genuinely passionate about something and go all in, and just move all the chips into the middle of the table. And I think that’s something that Craig did his whole life. And I know that if Craig could look back from this moment, what he would regret is time with his family.

Not that he didn’t take chances, not that he didn’t go to Italy and do the cooking class. Not that he didn’t travel, not that he didn’t often go down to their house in Florida to just enjoy the sunset and catch his breath, and spend time with his wife. Craig lived large. And we have the privilege and the opportunity to live large. And I think we could all do more of that if we were more intentional about it. So another lesson that I think is super valuable for all of us is that strategy is sizeless. So again, I told you, Craig had an agency that was 50, 100 people. And then at some point, in his agency’s trajectory, probably on the early end and towards the tail end, he only had a handful of employees. So he literally went from a multistate, multi-office, big agency down to a handful of employees.

But what Craig didn’t leave behind when he moved from the big agency to the small agency was the idea that strategy is critical, and that outside thinking that we bring to clients is absolutely the lifeblood of them innovating and growing their business, and that we have to bring that to the party. And so Craig was never a creative, for creative’s sake, kind of guy. He really believed that our greatest gift to our clients was that we were their thinking partners, that we were strategic, that we were thinking about their business from a perspective in a way that they weren’t thinking about it. And I saw him do that in all sizes of his agency. I saw him do it when he was coaching all of you or when he was counseling all of you. There was an intricacy to Craig’s strategy. There was a layered nuance to how he thought about things, and if you ever talked to him or worked with him, you know that his questions were not ordinary.

He brought really strategic questions. He thought deeply about the work, and he thought deeply about the clients, and he thought deeply about you and the challenges you were facing. And that didn’t matter if it was a little challenge or a big challenge, or a personal challenge, or a professional challenge. He just believed that it’s our responsibility and our business. And I think he believed this in his personal life too, that we’d be thoughtful about the work, and that we lead with ideas that our clients probably wouldn’t have come up with on their own because they’re too close to it, because they’re inside the bottle so they can’t read the label. And so, no matter what size agency Craig was at, in terms of his own shops, strategy was always front and center, and something that they offered everybody. Another lesson that I watched Craig live out is that there is no substitute for integrity.

So at one point in his agency’s life, they had a huge… I want to say it was a half a million dollars big. I could be wrong about the number, but it was big. This was back when I was in the peer group with him, and he had a huge media buy. So let’s call it half a million. And the client didn’t pay the media bill. And the client, eventually, in a relatively short period of time, went belly up and left the media holding that bill. And of course, Craig was in the middle of all of that. And you can talk about sequential responsibility, and all the things that happened in media. But at the end of the day, Craig knew that the media shop had, in good faith, run that media, and that they were owed that money, and he was not going to get it from the client.

And so he took care of that debt. It took him a long time, and I’m sure it was a bitter pill to swallow, but he believed it was the right thing to do, that it was not ethical for him to stick it to the media company. Now, could he have? I don’t know. Maybe. Could he have argued that the client went bankrupt? Could Craig have gone bankrupt? Lots of options. But my point is he took the high road. He honored his obligation, he honored the debt, he honored the promise he had made to the media company, even though the client didn’t honor their promise to him. And I saw Craig do this in big and small ways all the time. He just was a man of incredible integrity. One of my favorite lessons, and this is a lesson I preach all the time, it’s a lesson that was in Sell with Authority, the book that Stephen Woessner and I wrote, and it was certainly a core part of Craig’s life, especially when he came to AMI.

And the lesson is, the more you teach, the more you learn. And Craig believed that wholeheartedly. One of the things he loved about the work he did with us was that he got to spend a lot of time teaching, and coaching, and mentoring agency owners and agency leaders, and he loved it. He just thrived in it. But one of the things he loved the most about it was the more he taught and the more he mentored, and the more he coached, the more he actually learned. Because he was going through these experiences with the clients, and he was seeing the outcomes, and of course, he was helping them pivot when the first decision wasn’t spot on or wasn’t the right decision. And so he was, by walking it out with them and by teaching them, both by example, but in a mentor or coach way as well, by teaching them that every experience he had was enriching to him. And it was enriching to him in a way that he then could take that new lesson, that new learning he got, and fold it into his teaching. And then it just exponentially grew.

This fall, I had a conversation with Craig. I was in an airport, because of course, I’m often in an airport. And we were talking on the phone about some things, and I said to him… I mean, again, Craig’s wife was retired. He was approaching 70 years old, and one of the things that a lot of people didn’t know about Craig is Craig as a cancer survivor, he had esophageal cancer. He was without a voice for a long time. They had to do surgery, they had to do radiation, they had to do chemo. He lost all his hair. And again, here’s another example of if you’re going to do it, you do it big. Craig went at that treatment. He went after that cancer. He went at it in a big way. There was no question that he was going to come out on the other end.

In his mind, there was no question he was going to beat that cancer, but it was a really rough couple of years for him and his family. So anyway, so I was talking to him on the phone and I said to him… I know Kelly’s retired. They’d moved to go back to their hometown, to be closer to one of the kids and some of the grandkids, and the extended family is all there. And so I said to him, “Are you good with what you’re doing for AMI with the coaching and the virtual peer groups, and the key execs, or do you need to slow down? Because if you need to slow down, we can absolutely talk about making arrangements for that.”

And he said, “No, no. I want to keep going. I have a lot of gas in the tank. I love this work. I love being impactful. I love being somebody that people can count on. I love getting the phone call or the text when something worked and the client wants to celebrate. And of all the people they choose to celebrate, they choose to celebrate with me. No, I don’t want to slow down. I love this. I love that the more work I do, the more I coach and mentor and teach, the more I learn, which just allows me to be a better coach and mentor, and teacher.” And so, he just embraced that so fully. And I’m sure he did it at home too. He raised two amazing kids. He and Kelly did. Both very successful personally and professionally. And I’m sure that a lot of the life lessons that they carry with them came from their dad. So the last lesson from Craig that I think is important for us all to think about is… Well, hang on. I want to go back to the, the more you teach, the more you learn.

Some of you may be saying, “Well, I don’t teach workshops, Drew,” or, “I don’t do that.” You know what? You have employees, and you have, whether they’re contractors or they’re full-time employees, but you have people, young people typically, and maybe they’re not so young, but you have people who look up to you, who respect you, who are amazed at what you do and what you know. And a lot of times, we as agency owners move so fast. Our to-do list is so long, the phone call list is long. The email inbox is unbearable. And we miss opportunities to teach. And it doesn’t have to be a formal teaching. It doesn’t have to bring everybody into a conference room or put everybody on a Zoom call and have a PowerPoint deck, and walk them through the PowerPoint deck. You teach every time you stop and talk to an employee about how their day is going, and what’s going on with the client, and do you have any concerns or is there anything you need to know more about, or are you getting any red flags, or how can we help the client even more?

When your agency screws up and the AE humbly comes to you and says, “I have a problem.” And you say, “You know what? We’re going to deal with this by honoring our word, getting it fixed, getting it right, doing what we have to do to get it right.” Not only are you living the Craig Barnes, there’s no substitute for integrity, but you’re teaching. You’re teaching that employee how to look at the business and how to deal with clients, and how do we treat people. So every single day, you have the opportunity to be a teacher. Every single day. And in many, many cases, we just let that opportunity zip by us. And what I’m suggesting is, and what I’m asking is that maybe think a little bit about how you could show up as more of a coach, mentor, or teacher. And I think you’re going to be surprised at all the things that you learn when you do that.

Because the more you teach, the more you learn. All right. The last lesson that I think… There are many more lessons. I could have talked about Craig for hours. But the last lesson I want to talk about on this episode is when I mentioned on the very beginning of our conversation, which is for me, at AMI, there are a lot of important rules and values, and we’re very clear about our mission, but there is no value that is more intrinsic in how I want the business to be than you lead with love. And like I said, when I invited Craig to come and do some work with us, it was because he had both the head and the heart for the business. And any of you who interacted with him or were coached by him, or were in a group he facilitated, or sat with him at a roundtable at the summit. Any