Episode 63

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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 Share on X

 

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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 everyb