Episode 63:

A leader of such national accounts as Home Shopping Network, The Disney Channel, CitiFinancial, and Papa John’s Pizza as the founder and sole principal of $110 million Atlanta-based Fricks/Firestone agency, John Fricks is focused on the same kind of growth at AntonWest. In the seven year transition from Fricks/Firestone in Atlanta to AntonWest in Jacksonville, he consulted with CEOs of major corporations and agency owners all over the country.

John Fricks believes the key to problem solving is listening to clients describe their challenges so the agency can creatively advance a solution through its full arsenal of resources digital, broadcast, print, and public relations. He will tell you that the proximity to navigable water was not part of the lure to Jacksonville, but you are sure to find him relaxing by a dock when not behind his desk.

 

 

What you’ll learn about in this episode:

  • How John managed to get huge accounts at his small agency (Fricks/Firestone)
  • How to appeal to a CEO’s insecurities
  • What John does at his new agency AntonWest
  • Why agencies need to get involved in all areas of their client’s business, not just the advertising
  • Staying up to date on new technology and ideas
  • Having great relationships with vendors that make them feel part of the business
  • How to recruit and retain top talent
  • What a culture must have to be truly collaborative
  • How to position your agency in the marketplace
  • How account people can gain the trust of their creatives
  • Why it’s important to allow your employees to fail (when trying)
  • What agency CEOs need to be focusing on today

 

The Golden Nugget:

“The key to growing accounts is stepping outside your comfort zone.” – John Fricks Click To Tweet

 

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Speaker 1:

If you’re going to take the risk of running an agency, shouldn’t you get the benefits, too? Welcome to Build A Better Agency, where we show you how to build an agency that can scale and grow with better clients, invested employees, and best of all, more money to the bottom line. Bringing his 25 plus years of expertise as both an agency owner and agency consultant to you, please welcome your host, Drew McLellan.

Drew McLellan:

Hey, everybody. Drew McLellan here with another episode of Build A Better Agency. You are going to love this episode. Be prepared to take notes, be prepared to learn some new ways of thinking about your agency, and growth, and creativity. You are going to learn from someone who has done it and continues to do it.

So let me tell you a little bit about our guest today. So John Fricks built an agency called Fricks-Firestone, and they serve clients like Home Shopping Network and the Disney Channel, and Citi Financial, Papa John’s Pizza, and then John sold that agency and spent about the next five years or so consulting with corporations and agency owners before he decided that retirement was not for him. About three and a half years ago, he formed a new agency called Antonwest, and they are knocking it out of the park.

So we’re going to talk to John about all of that, about the evolution of the agencies that he worked with. We’re going to talk about creativity in the workplace. John believes that the key to problem solving is listening to clients, describe their challenges so that the agencies can really creatively advance a solution using its full arsenal of resources.

He will tell you that the proximity to navigatable waters was not part of the lure. His agency is now located in Jacksonville, Florida, but I suspect that those waters keep him pretty busy. When John is not busy running his agency and coaching his people, you will find him hanging out by a dock. John, I’m really grateful that you have stepped away from the dock for an hour or so today to hang out with us. Welcome to the podcast.

John Fricks:

Thank you, Drew, and I appreciate you’re having me. I’ve been following your broadcast, and I’m actually learning things every time I listen to one. So it’s an honor to be one of them.

Drew McLellan:

Me, too. I learn every time and I’m looking forward to learning from you as well. So let’s talk a little bit about the transition. So you went from a large agency, the agency that you sold to a smaller agency, a more nimble agency. Talk to me about how you manage and grow a smaller agency and how that contrasts with what you did with your big shop, your original shop.

John Fricks:

Well, it’s interesting that you asked the question that way because at Fricks-Firestone, when I sold it, it was about $118 million in billings. We were still operating as though we were a small agency. We were very close knit as a group of people working on the agency. At our largest size, we only had 44 employees, but we had major national accounts. It just proves that adage that whether you’re working on a large account or a small one, you’re working just as hard, so it’s better to go after the larger accounts.

Drew McLellan:

Absolutely.

John Fricks:

At the end of the day, you manage them the exact same way. You’ve got a group of highly creative people that you have to motivate. I tell people all the time, “There’s one thing you can’t do. It’s legislate creative people. We’re all procrastinators in this industry, and you’ve got to find ways to motivate them, to give the best they can, and to reach out outside of their comfort zone and do things that they normally wouldn’t do without feeling that they were part of something.” So that’s what we tried to instill in Fricks-Firestone. It seemed to work pretty well there, and that’s what I’ve tried to do at Antonwest.

Drew McLellan:

So back to what you’re saying about being 44 people, as you know, there are a lot of small agencies out there, and a lot of times I think they’re a little of afraid of swinging above their weight, and it sounds like with 44 people, you guys didn’t let your “small size” get in the way of chasing after some giant brands.

So as you were approaching those brands, what was the story you told them to make them comfortable with the fact that you were not a big box agency or one of the holding company agencies? How did you make that okay for them?

John Fricks:

Well, bear in mind, Fritz-Firestone I started in 1986. So that was a little bit before a lot of these big box agencies came onto the scene, but we still had to compete with the larger agencies.

Drew McLellan:

Sure.

John Fricks:

I actually had a lot of fun going after accounts that were housed within a big agency because we were able to sit down. First of all, I try to go as high up in an organization as I can when I’m making those first contacts, ideally with a CEO because that’s the person, really, that is experiencing all the pain points and looking toward the future and saying, “How do I take this company and move it from here to there with all these obstacles in place?”

The marketing person is, not to take away from their role or their excitement, but they’re really in it trying to build their own resume, have fun while they do it, and they’re looking forward to their next job for the most part. So they’re not really the right person for the kinds of solutions that we were able to offer clients.

So I’d somehow get into a meeting with a CEO, and in that meeting, I would not pitch the agency at all. I mean, I know who we are. I’d tell them a little bit about us, but I would, as quickly as possible, switch it to them and just listen as they talked about what they were doing and trying to do. All CEOs are guarded about what they’ll tell you. Usually, it’s a more rosy picture than it really is.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah, absolutely.

John Fricks:

We’re all agency guys, so we definitely know how that works. We do it ourselves, but if you ask the right questions, they’ll start to open up a little bit, especially if you can further that conversation by actually talking about solutions or possible ways to approach something in that conversation.

Almost always, I had an opportunity, maybe not right away, but within three to six months, I would have an opportunity to go back to that client and work on a significant project for them that their existing agency, it was beyond their resource scope or it was something that they had a to-do list of the first and 10 things and this was number 14, but in the CEO’s mind, it was really number two, just didn’t know how to solve it. So we had those kind of opportunities and we just exploited them and were able to develop good relationships that ended up with the entire account.

Drew McLellan:

Both in your own role as CEO of a couple agencies, and I think also probably as you coached agency owners in between your CEO roles, I’m sure that you had this conversation quite a bit, but agency owners struggle with how to get to the CEO. It sounds like you had some success around that. Did you have any tricks of the trade or how did you make that happen?

John Fricks:

Well, for one, I had the advantage of being in Atlanta, which has a lot of major corporate entities. So it was a good place to practice and learn, but I had been involved in new business my entire career with agencies all over the country. So I had that experience going for me when I started my own agency, but it’s really just you start with the attitude of, “I can do this,” and then you do it. You get rejected sometimes, and sometimes you surprise yourself, but if you can get through to the gatekeeper and make it not about advertising or marketing or selling, but really just an introduction of CEO to CEO with some common point of discussion, whether it’s a charitable cause or something that you saw, a news tidbit about that person, just to line up with their interest, you’d be surprised they’ll open the door.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. Yeah. I love that you said CEO to CEO. I am constantly banging the drum with the agency owners that I work with that there is no better new business person if they want to swing above their weight to send out into the main streets than the agency owner themselves.

John Fricks:

Absolutely. I mean, I’ve tried new business people, and the relationship just starts at a totally different level and often causes more problems than it does opportunities.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. Every once in a while there’s a new business professional, a biz dev person who actually earns their keeping an agency, but for every one of those, there’s probably 999 out there that actually cost the agency more money and more relationships than they gained them.

John Fricks:

Oh, totally. I agree. You also find yourself in that trap of they go out and get the lower hanging fruit, which is usually projects. Pretty soon, you’re identified as a project agency and that’s how they think of you. When it comes to those bigger issues, you’re excluded from that conversation because they don’t know you that way.

Drew McLellan:

Right. Right. Yeah. You’re not invited to the table to even have the conversations.

John Fricks:

Exactly.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. So let’s fast forward now and talk a little bit about your current agency. Give us a little bit of an idea of how large that agency is and the kind of work that you guys do.

John Fricks:

Well, we’re about three and a half years old now. We have a small stable of clients. Most of them are within the geographical area of what I call Greater Jacksonville, although we have one client that’s all over the country with contact points, which can be a nightmare sometimes, but just in the last three and a half years, we’ve already been able to help three clients become the fastest growing in their categories.

Drew McLellan:

Wow.

John Fricks:

We helped another group create a national trade organization that is growing like crazy all over the country.

Drew McLellan:

That’s how you keep clients right there.

John Fricks:

Yeah. You get your foot in the door and then help them. As long as they’re growing and they see the value, they’ll keep you. We used to joke at Fricks-Firestone that we seem to have a seven-year itch on our clients. We were able to help them through all stages of growth for about seven years and after that, they had had a couple of CEO changes and probably three or four marketing directors, and you start to get that new broom sweeps clean effect going because they want a bigger agency, but during the time we had them, we usually were able to make a large impact on their business.

Drew McLellan:

Well, and seven years today, that’s still a really long run with a client. Absolutely.

John Fricks:

Oh, yeah, and especially if they’re growing like crazy. I mean, Papa John’s, we got that one. It was a small regional pizza chain that was trying to break out and we helped them do. I guess we had them a little over seven years, but they grew to more than 3,000 units all over the country and internationally. We handled everything for them, everything from the advertising to the co-op programs, to public relations, to internal employee motivational campaigns. I think that that’s the key to growing accounts is the being willing to step outside that comfort zone of just being an ad agency because a lot of the times, the problem isn’t one that can be solved by advertising, but you still have to be creative in how you get at it.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. I I think that’s so true. A, I think the word creative has been redefined in our business, and I think it’s really about creative thinking and problem solving. Our clients don’t care about their advertising and marketing. They care about advancing their business goals. The more we are willing to roll up our sleeves and stick our nose in that, whether that’s the customer experience, whether that’s customer care, whether that is internal programs to recruit and retain great employees, whatever it is, when we can help them solve those problems and use our creativity to do it, that’s what’s sticky, and that’s how you set the hook in a client.

John Fricks:

Absolutely.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. So you’ve been in the business a while and I say that respectfully because I have, too. We’re both gray hairs in the business, I guess. How are you looking at your current agency differently? How with all of the digital demands and all of the analytics and the data that we have today that we certainly didn’t have when you and I started our careers, how are you guiding and growing your agency differently perhaps than you did your first go around?

John Fricks:

Well, first of all, I think when you get to be our age, it’s important that we stay up-to-date with all the latest things that are going on. So I attend a lot of seminars on breaking technology. I think I continually surprise my staff when we start talking about things. Very often, I know as much about what they’re talking about as they do, and they can’t quite believe that I do that.

I’m not a big Twitter person, but I certainly know its power and how to use it. We use it a great effect for our clients. In Facebook, same way, but one of the things that we’re trying to do is to make sure that we have a lot of very good external relationships with vendors that know they’re part of the business intimately and far better than we ever could as an agency.

I mean, there are agencies that try to be all things to all people by having all of those services within their house, and I think that’s a mistake. First of all, you’re adding a lot of unnecessary overhead, but you’re also limiting yourself to just what those people know because they’re going to gravitate to solutions that are within that comfort zone. So we spend a lot of time identifying and nurturing those outside relationships with vendors that allow us to really leverage our size to be much bigger, much more nimble, and much more on top of things than we could if we just tried to do it on our own.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. I think you’re absolutely right. I think it’s almost impossible unless you’re going to be an agency of 75 or 100 people. I think it’s impossible to keep all of that expertise in-house because the learning curve is so great and the changes are so exponential that it’s impossible for a small agency who has a digital team of a handful of people. There just isn’t enough bandwidth amongst a handful of folks to stay current on everything that’s going on.

So I think you’re right. I think the blend of having some expertise in-house and people who can interpret all of the technology for our clients, partnering with people whose job it is to stay on the cutting edge and on the bleeding edge and help us stay current. I think for most small agencies, that’s the only way to get it done anymore.

John Fricks:

Yeah. I would say that that extends right on up there to all but the big mega shops. You can’t hire enough people to stay on top of all the various technologies that are out there to be taken advantage of today. It’s impossible, but you’re right. You have to know they exist. You have to be able to think your way through the problem to know that you want that, and then you challenge them to help you come up with that solution.

Drew McLellan:

Well, and I think our job is to understand the technology enough to be able to apply it to the business problems that our clients have, and to be able to look at everything in the toolbox and know which tool to grab for any given circumstance or client.

John Fricks:

Totally agree with you.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. So I want to talk about staffing and how to foster creativity in the workspace. So first of all, how do you recruit and attract the kind of talent that you know will serve your agency and your clients well? Then how do you create an environment that gets them to stay because as you know, that is a major struggle for agencies today? Everybody is very concerned about talent acquisition and retention, especially around the younger employees, but in all ages, it’s a problem. So what are your tricks of that trade?

John Fricks:

Well, let’s start by excluding the creative department for just a moment because, obviously, when you’re interviewing for them, you’re looking for experience and creativity, all the things you would normally do, but talk about the other people in the agency that are just as important and vital to the ongoing success of the company.

When I’m interviewing people, I’ve been told by employees that I’m a tough interviewer because I tend to throw them off stride because what I’m looking for are things that are not normally part of someone’s resume. It’s not necessarily experience. I’m looking for those innate character traits that you build around. You can teach somebody processes, you can teach somebody how to go about doing something, but there’s certain innate things that I look for, at least, that you just can’t reproduce in somebody that doesn’t have it to begin with.

So I’m looking for people who have an innate curiosity about things, how they work, the questions they’re asking me to see where’s their thinking pattern going. Then in the middle of that, I may totally change the subject on them and throw a barrier in front of them to see how they handle that. Do they look at it like a giant tree that just fell across the road and they stop and they don’t know what to do next or do they think about it for just a second and then figure out how to get around that tree? That type of intuitive thinking I think is absolutely critical.

Drew McLellan:

Okay. So can you give us an example of a barrier that you might throw out in an interview?

John Fricks:

Well, it depends on the person. Let me think about that for just a second. Let’s say you’ve got somebody that is talking to you and they’re absolutely confident. They’re expressing confidence. They can do this, they’ve done it, they’re great at their job, and they’re telling me about their successes. So I may look at them and say, “So tell me about one that didn’t go right for you,” or if it’s somebody that’s younger, “In school, what your least favorite subject?” Then I might talk about that and I’ll say, “Well, what kind of grade did you get in that subject?” If they got an A in their least favorite subject, that’s a good sign for me. If they got an F, that tells me something too.

So I’ll go into a tangent like that, and depending on that answer, I may carry that thread for a little while longer and ask them, “Well, if you had that to do differently, what would you have done?” and see, are they laying the blame on somebody else or have they looked inward in their own character and said, “Well, probably if I’d known that that was going to be this important, I would’ve done this, this and that or I wouldn’t have partied so much or whatever.” You just don’t know. You don’t know where that’s going to take you, but I’m really looking at what’s the underlying character of this person. Are they willing to take some risks? Do they take ownership on what they do? If they don’t like it, do they still make it better?

If the answers are no, then those are danger signals to me. They’re not necessarily dangerous signals that say, “Don’t hire this person,” but they’re certainly cautionary signals that say, “Let’s learn a little bit more before we make a decision.”

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. Yeah. So what do you do in the environment? How do you mentor and nurture your employees so that, A, you get great work out of them, but, B, so that they stick around? What is your philosophy around that?

John Fricks:

Well, the first thing that we do, we have, I don’t know that you want to call it a motto, but a guiding principle. If you ask anybody at our agency what is it, they all know it. It is, “You never say can’t and you can’t say never because there’s always a way to get something done. It’s just a matter of are you willing to throw those resources at it or not?”

Drew McLellan:

Right. Right.

John Fricks:

So we instill that in everybody. The other thing that we do is we make sure that they understand that creativity is three things, really. It’s creative culture rather. It’s creative acceptance, it’s communication, and it’s collaboration. It’s like a three-legged stool. If you take any one of those three away, and you’re not going to have a creative culture.

So starting with our office space, it is open by design. We have private offices, but the offices are glass, but the biggest space in our office is a collaborative area dominated by a big whiteboard and a couch and some seating where we encourage brainstorming on major assignments. We invite everybody in the agency to attend that has time. You never know where a great creative idea is going to come from. It might be from an accountant. You just don’t know, but that interaction of those different departments in a collaborative setting produces some interesting results.

For one thing, you see a greater respect for each other coming out of that. I’ve had comments come back over and over again that an assistant account executive, “Wow. She came up with a great idea. We got to take care of her.” When she goes back to the creative department with a brief, they’re going to listen because there’s some mutual respect that’s being formed.

So I think there’s a lot of that that goes on, but we also have a culture of don’t be afraid to try something. Even if you fail, that’s okay, but I don’t want you to fail because you were afraid to try something. Hopefully, if you fail, you learn from it and you don’t make the same mistake twice or three times. I think you have to let people know that it’s okay to reach out past your comfort level and try things, and they are going to fail sometimes.

Drew McLellan:

Absolutely. Right.

John Fricks:

Yeah.

Drew McLellan:

If they don’t or if we don’t, it’s not just them, it’s us, too. If we don’t, then we’re not stretching too far outside the comfort zone.

John Fricks:

Absolutely true. We have a client that it’s probably the least sexy client you could imagine, and it’s okay for me to say that because they say it about themselves, but they do these giant $500,000 machines. They’re giant vacuum cleaners that are created to clean out sewers. You can’t think of anything less sexy.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. Right, right.

John Fricks:

Yet, the quality and the attention to detail, they give to their product, it’s an employee-owned company, they have come from a distant second in that market to neck and neck with the leading competitor, and about 30% of their business now is overseas, international. A lot of that was done by us driving some public relations programs for them.

In fact, our first assignment for this client was actually advertising, but when we were … I was taking a tour with the president of the company and they had all these $500,000 trucks, a whole bunch of them, lined up outside. They were parked everywhere, and I’m thinking to myself, “Wow! This company is either doing really, really well or really, really poorly.”

Drew McLellan:

Right. Right.

John Fricks:

So I said, “What’s with all of these trucks? I mean, I didn’t expect to see this many.”

He said, “Oh, that, we’re sending a shipment of trucks to Peru.”

I said, “Peru?”

He says, “Yeah.” He says, “It’s really a big deal for us because it represents a lot of dollars, and we’re the only guys that are competing internationally.”

I said, “You have got to do public relations about this. You can’t just keep this quiet.”

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. You got to tell that story.

John Fricks:

Yeah. They were very hesitant and he said, “Well, these trucks are here because they’re getting ready to be shipped out in 10 days.” Now, the last thing you would think you would do as a new agency, brand new agency, our first day, is to say to a client, “You need to do a PR campaign first,” and only 10 days to do it, and we’re not a PR firm and say, “If you agree, we’ll take care of it. We’ll make sure it comes off right.” They trusted us with that assignment. We pulled it off and we had major press. The governor was involved. We had the port of Jacksonville involved, which later became a client because of our doing this program with this client called Vatcon. It just was the start of putting them on the map to really grow, but that was risk. You’ve got to be willing to do those kinds of things.

I brought that back to the agency and everybody said … First of all, I said, “Wow! How are we going to do this? We only have 10 days.” I said, “Yeah,” and I said, “Let’s get everybody together. Let’s figure out how we do it,” and we created the plan of action. We got approval, and then we went to work and executed it and pulled it off. That was an ad agency doing a PR program that looking back, I would dare say was probably pulled off better than any PR firm could have done. So go figure.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. I think a lot of it is just about being willing to do whatever it takes. I think that at attitude of getting to know the client’s business and suggesting solutions, whether you are the provider of those solutions or not, with the goal of helping them solve their problems, that’s what … We go out into the field and we do research with CMOs every year. We did one last summer ago, summer of 2015, where we talk to CEOs and CMOs about how they hire and fire agencies and why.

The bottom line is they want to feel like we care about their problems and are trying to solve them as desperately as they are. When we do that, we’re earning incredible amount of trust and credibility with them that serves both their business and ours very well.

John Fricks:

Yeah. You have to have that. They have to know that you’re going to give them the right solution, whether or not you’re the right provider of that solution. Now, I’m a big believer that if it’s at all possible to do, you stay involved with that assignment, even if it’s not your area of expertise.

Drew McLellan:

Absolutely.

John Fricks:

That’s where that network of outside people comes in very handy because these are all people we work with. They know we look out for them, that they get paid like they’re supposed to, and we value their input as much as the direction we give them. They are very loyal to the agency and it’s come in handy a lot of times.

Drew McLellan:

Absolutely. So after you sold your first agency and before you started the new one, I know you did some consulting with agencies and you were really a growth strategist for those agencies. When you walked into a new agency that was stagnant, so maybe they’re not even shrinking, but they’re not able to grow, they sort of feel like they’re at a brick wall, what did you look for and what kind of problems were you diagnosing and what were some of the solutions that you encouraged and coached them to embrace to be able to grow? Because I know you helped a lot of agencies grow.

John Fricks:

Well, usually, when I go in, the first thing that the owner is looking for is how do we position ourselves in the marketplace so that we’re different from the other agencies.

Drew McLellan:

Wait, wait. John, you mean where a full service integrated agency is not how every agency should position themselves?

John Fricks:

Yeah. Those are all nice descriptions, but on any given day, on any pitch, everybody sounds the same.

Drew McLellan:

Absolutely.

John Fricks:

In fact, one of the reasons I sold Fricks-Firestone was I had gotten it to a point where I was just getting beat down by just keeping everything going because we had gone through 9/11, a whole bunch of things. When the people came in to take a look at our books and validate that we really had the billings we said we had and everything else, one of the accountants that was on that assignment, they were there about three weeks, came into my office toward the end of it and she said, “John,” she said, “I want to tell you something. I’ve been doing this for almost 20 years, and of all the agencies that we’ve looked at, you’re the first agency I can think of that could actually say you helped 13 companies become the fastest growing in their categories.”

As soon as she said that, I said, “Debbie, do you know if you had told me that even two weeks ago, I wouldn’t be selling this place?” That was my point of difference and I couldn’t the tree for the forest.

Drew McLellan:

Isn’t that crazy?

John Fricks:

Yeah. So I guess it’s that adage, doctors should never be their own doctor, an attorney should never be their own attorney, and agency should never be their own agency. You just get too close to it, but, yeah, it’s the age old struggle of how do you position yourself in the marketplace so that you’re different. I think it starts from that, but all the agencies that I worked with when I first went in, to get back to your original question, the first thing I did was do an audit of their employees. I would do one-on-ones with each of them, let them know that it was totally confidential. It would not get back to the owner in any way that could be traced back to them.

I said, “What do you think of your role in this agency? Is it what you want it to be? How could it be better?” If it’s a creative person, “Do you yourself as being able to do a lot of good creative work? What are your clients saying about your work? What needs to be different?” and start the process of identifying the internal truths about that agency because like any client your positioning has to be based on reality. If it’s not, you’re living a lie and you can’t make that lie real no matter how you try. So it’s got to be based on what you really are.

So I would do that audit, and from that, I would make certain conclusions about that agency. If it was out of sync with what the owner wanted it to be, I would start to think about, “Well, how do we get those two to come closer together?” Very often, you would find we’re agencies, we’re in the business of being creative, and you would think this would be a duh subject, but so many times, agencies weren’t being viewed as creative even though they might have had great creative people onboard and willing clients that wanted great creativity.

I mean, I also talk to the clients, but the feedback you get inside is, “Well, we’re not supported by management. Account people won’t take a great idea to the client. They just come back and say, ‘The client won’t do it. It’s too risky.’”

I would say to them, “That’s not true. If you base that creative around a solution to a real problem, that client is going to want it. Those are the easiest things to sell in the world are creative solutions that actually are delivering a solution.” So many agencies, it’s creative for the sake of creativity, and that is just such a mistake. It’s got to be based on a real problem.

Drew McLellan:

So after you help an agency understand how to position themselves, and I agree with you, it’s easier for an outsider to see that than it is for … It’s difficult, and we tell this to our clients all the time, right? It’s impossible to describe the outside of a bottle when you’re inside the bottle. So after you’ve helped an agency recognize what their positioning is, how do you help them take that and actually grow their business?

John Fricks:

I actually will, if they are involved in an upcoming pitch, I will actually work with them on that pitch and show them how that positioning can be brought across to the client. If they’re not in a pitch and don’t have one that’s imminent, I don’t hold myself out as, “I’m a new business guru. I’ll go get the business for you.” That’s not what I’m there for, but if they’re not in an active pitch or one’s coming up, we will actually create an internal one just to go through the process, and it starts with a creative brief on the client because I think that’s extremely important.

It’s one of the things that I stress to account people all the time is, “Look, if you want to have the true respect of your creative and you want them to bend over backwards to do great work for your clients, they have to trust that if they bring you a great idea, you’re going to go sell it regardless of what you think.”

I said, “A creative brief is not just about communicating the basic requirements, your target audience, the problem you’re trying to solve or the primary message you want to convey, and any mandatories. It’s really the only way that an account person has to be able to hold the creative in check if they, for some reason, don’t, just flat out don’t like it. If you write the brief correctly and a creative come back with the assignment exactly on target, your obligation is to go sell it. If you don’t like it, there are ways to get that across, but it’s got to be legitimate. It’s got to be tied to that brief.”

For example, you might have written into the tone of the project, a certain tone, and it’s off. So it doesn’t need to be that the creative solution is off strategy. It may be off tone or it may be something else may be weak about it so that you can ask for a second one. That’s the only place that the account person really has an opportunity to control what’s coming back on that creative.

One of the things that I try to do in those meetings is I bring everybody into open brainstorm sessions, and we invite everybody in the staff into that and let them be part of the process, but we talk about the challenge, then we brainstorm it. Like any brainstorm, you start off by saying, “Anything works. There’s no criticism. No idea is too bad as long as it’s on the strategy of the problem we’re trying to fix. So as long as you stick to that, throw it out there. If it doesn’t fit there, we may pull it back in so we don’t spend a lot of time going down the wrong direction,” but then they have a chance to interact together and work on that.

One of the things that always comes up in those meetings, especially a new pitch in a new business pitch, is not just about, “All right. Who’s the client. Who are you pitching to? What kind of person is he? Is it a person that is willing to take risk? Is it a person that has to have all the T’s crossed and the I’s dotted? Who’s going to be in that meeting? Is the CFO going to be in that meeting? Where’s the pitch to him subtly to show him that there’s an ROI in this? Is the sales guy going to be in there from the company? He looks at marketing as an obstacle a lot of times. So if this whole thing is all about marketing and no sales, we’re not going to win.”

We start to talk in those kinds of terms in that meeting, and then start pulling people to think about different ways of approaching that client that actually leave memorable marks because unless it’s an RFP, and I hate RFPs. We don’t participate in them. If you get an RFP, an RFP is a client that already knows what the problem is and the solution, and they’re evaluating you for other reasons. So unless you’ve got a personal relationship in there or you helped the RFP, you’re not going to win.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. So what I tell agencies is unless you believe you have an unfair advantage, odds are you have an unfair disadvantage.

John Fricks:

Absolutely. Almost every time.

Drew McLellan:

Yup. Agreed. So let’s go back to culture because I want to be mindful of our time and I want to make sure I get to this. So talk to me about the culture that you create inside your agency that cultivates this new definition of creative, this creative problem solving for clients, not only amongst your creative department, but in your entire agency. How do you foster that amongst your team so that they feel that they have the green light to take risk and to think bigger and differently?

John Fricks:

Well, at our agency, because I’m involved with all of our clients, I’m in those meetings. So they see firsthand that I’m practicing what I’m preaching. I open those boundaries up. We talk about different approaches that have nothing necessarily to do with advertising. We talk about the strategy. We bend and mold that. Let’s say we do the strategy upfront and then create from that. A lot of agencies create and then they build a strategy to justify, but if you start with that strategy and you open up the thinking, and they see me doing it in that meeting, and they see other people. Jefferson Rall, our creative director, very good at this. He’s got a great business sense. They see that happening, and they see that it’s okay to come up with those kinds of ideas.

Then in practice, they see that as we put these things into place, if something does go wrong, we don’t point a finger at somebody and say, “You screwed that. Next time you’re out of here.” We say, “Okay. What could we have done better about that that that wouldn’t have happened?” and then we incorporate that into the next one as a learning experience.

So we encourage our employees to take chances. I mentioned this earlier, but we let them know it’s okay to fail if you try. It’s not okay to fail by not trying. If you learn from those failures and you say to yourself, “I’m never going to say can’t and I can’t say never,” then you know you’ve got the freedom to come up with ideas and nobody’s going to criticize you for that. They’re only going to criticize you if you sit there like a wimp and don’t bring up anything. Somebody’s going to look at you and say, “You’re quiet.”

Drew McLellan:

Yeah, “Why are you here?”

John Fricks:

“What are you thinking about?” We call them out on that regularly. When I say we, it isn’t me all the time. Sometimes it might be a junior art director that looks at a senior art director and says, “How come I’m the only one giving ideas?” They call each other out on it, but it’s all about that communication and collaboration and seeing by example and seeing by actual practice that we really do want to do the right thing for our clients.

I have never once had a meeting with anybody in the agency where I said, “We can’t do that because there’s no money in it for us,” or “We can’t do that because we’re an ad agency, not a …” whatever. We’ll never have that conversation with anybody at those levels. As far as they’re concerned, come up with the idea that solves that problem and we’ll figure out how to make money on it.

Drew McLellan:

Yup, and we’ll figure out how to do it, right? Who we need to partner with to get it done?

John Fricks:

Exactly.

Drew McLellan:

Yup. So John, this has been a great conversation. I could chat with you for a long time, but I want to make sure that we wrap this up in a timely fashion. So I have one more question for you. So what do you believe is a CEO of an agency’s biggest role or responsibility? Where should a CEO be investing his or her time to best propel their agency forward into the future?

John Fricks:

I think the CEO of an agency today really has two primary functions. One is to head up that new business development, and the other one is to foster that relationship internally that allows you to grow your existing clients. If you’re not focused on both of those areas, you are missing giant opportunities and going to experience problems down the road.

I think that’s the CEO’s role. He can delegate everything else off, but leading that new business effort and being the leader within the agency of that culture and making sure that everybody knows this is what we’re trying to build. He can’t abdicate responsibility for those two roles or she.

Drew McLellan:

Amen. Listeners, I swear to God, I did not tell John to say that I know you hear me harping on those two things, that those are the two most important roles that you as an agency owner have. So I promise you that was completely uncoached, but I could not agree with John more. John, this has been a great conversation, and I know the listeners have taken away lots of nuggets that they can apply immediately into their agency. So thank you so much for your time and for sharing your expertise with us.

John Fricks:

Well, Drew, I appreciate you’re having me. If any of your listeners are CEOs of agencies and they want to just talk about their firm and maybe add something to it, I’m always glad to make a new connection, and certainly it would invite them to do so.

Drew McLellan:

How is the best way for them to get ahold of you, John?

John Fricks:

Probably through the agency. My email is [email protected] Our phone number is 901, 904, excuse me, 904-701-4140.

Drew McLellan:

Okay, and we’ll make sure that that information is in the show notes as well, everybody. So, John, again, thank you for your time. Folks, thank you for your time as well. I’m grateful that you take the time to listen to these podcasts. I hope they’re incredibly helpful to you.

If you need me, you know how to get a hold of me. I’m [email protected] If you are finding value in these podcasts, couple things you can do. Number one, please subscribe so that every week you get notified that there’s a new episode and you don’t have to go hunting for it or remember to go look for it, and if you are finding value, one thing you could do that I would really be grateful for is we live on ratings and reviews both at Google and Stitcher and at iTunes. That’s how other folks find us and how we are able to attract great guests like John.

So if you can do that for me, I would be most grateful. I will be back next week with another guest and another hour of learning for you. Until then, go out and invest that time in new business and in your people. Both of those will bear huge fruit for you. So I’ll catch you next week. Thanks so much.

Speaker 1:

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