Episode 366:

We always say, “What you measure matters,” on the podcast, and today is no exception. To keep you and your team fed, you need to measure metrics in your agency. Without this vital system in place, you likely have no idea how much money is coming in or being spent, which directly affects your team.

That’s why we have Marcel Petitpas here to teach us all about running your agency by the numbers. He’s the expert in AGIs, delivery margins, and profit and loss statements, and he knows how to keep agencies on the right track.

In this episode, we’ll discuss the most important metrics agencies should already be measuring, how to improve time utilization, calculate billable rates, and the importance of excellent project management. It might seem like an intimidating topic, but we promise that it’s not as painful as it looks, and it will make your life so much easier once you make the changes we discuss in this episode.

Marcel Petitpas is the CEO & Co-Founder of Parakeeto, a company dedicated to helping agencies measure and improve their profitability by streamlining their operations and reporting systems, a problem he discovered while running his own agency back in his early 20’s.

He’s also the fractional COO at Gold Front, an award-winning creative agency in San Francisco working with brands like Uber, Slack, Keap, and more. As well as the head strategic coach at SaaS Academy by Dan Martell, the #1 coaching program for B2B SaaS businesses in the world.

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.

measuring metrics

What You Will Learn in This Episode:

  • The importance of measuring metrics and agency finances
  • The difference between delivery margins and delivery costs
  • Three ways to improve delivery margins
  • How to approach employee utilization differently to boost profitability
  • Why time tracking shouldn’t go out the window
  • What to consider when setting billable rates
  • The imperative role project managers play in measuring metrics
  • Where agencies might face challenges in 2023

“I'm constantly saying, I think most agencies are suffering from indigestion and not starvation. They just happen to feel the same.” Marcel Petitpas Click To Tweet“Go figure out your delivery margin today. Figure out what that number is and make sure that it gets to over 50% on your profit and loss statement consistently. Do that, and your life will be a lot easier.” Marcel Petitpas Click To Tweet“The drug that too many agency owners have been hooked on is revenue growth without considering revenue quality.” Marcel Petitpas Click To Tweet“Any time spent working for clients, moving client deliverables forward, whether it increases or decreases the rate that they pay you or not, that is the fundamental calculation for utilization” Marcel Petitpas Click To Tweet“I enjoy turning work away because it means I can sell like a cat and not a dog. And I think that's a good place to be selling from.” Marcel Petitpas Click To Tweet

Ways to contact Marcel:

Resources:



Speaker 1:

Welcome to the Agency Management Institute community, where you’ll learn how to grow and scale your business, attract and retain the best talent, make more money, and keep more of what you make. The Build a Better Agency Podcast presented by White Label IQ is packed with insights on how small to midsize agencies survive and thrive in today’s market. Bringing his 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. Welcome to another episode of Build a Better Agency. Super excited to have you here, and I’m excited about this topic that we’re going to talk about today because I think it’s so important to your agency’s success. So I will tell you about that in a quick second. I want to remind you… I haven’t talked about this very much yet, but I want to remind you that the Build a Better Agency Summit is coming up in May of ’23, which seems far away but as we all know in agency life that’ll be here in a blink. Tickets are on sale now and we have an amazing lineup of speakers. We’re going to talk about leadership. We’re going to talk about presenting to sell. We’re going to talk about agency evolution. We are going to talk about fear and imposter syndrome. We are going to talk about all kinds of different topics that are related to running your agency well.

So again, bigger picture, stepping back, working on the business for a couple of days, we would love to have you join us. If you go over to the Agency Management Institute website, if you look in the upper left corner it says BaBA Summit. You can click there, you can read more about this summit. We’re in Chicago again in ’23. You can grab your ticket now before we sell out and we would love to have you join us. So I’ll tell you more as the months come ahead about our speakers, but it is really an amazing lineup and I’m super excited about it. So I would love to have you join us. All right, let me tell a little bit about our guests. So Marcel Petitpas was an agency owner and decided that he wanted to move on to something different. He had an idea for how to help agencies do the agency math that they needed to better, created some software, does a lot of consulting, but is very much focused on agency finances and metrics.

And so he and I often have great conversations around this topic. He loves to dig deep into how agencies can be more profitable every single day. And so I’m excited to have him on the show and to share his wisdom with all of you. And I know that a lot of you don’t like to talk about the numbers, and I know a lot of you don’t like math. But I know a lot of you like to take care of your family and take good care of your team. And I’m telling you what we’re going to talk about for the next hour is exactly that. So it is outcome based, it is profit based, it is taking care of the people you love based. So yes, you have to do a little math but I promise its easy math and it’s super smart math that will help you make better decisions in your agency every single day. So with that, let’s get to the conversation because I know he has a lot to teach us. Hey, welcome to the podcast. Thanks for coming back.

Speaker 3:

Man, it is great to be here, Drew. I just want you to know that your show is one I’ve been listening to for a very long time, and you are one of the thought leaders that I learned a lot from when I first got into this industry. So it’s a kind of surreal moment for me to be on the show today. I really appreciate you having me.

Speaker 2:

Well, I think you and I have had a lot of conversations over the years. I think our philosophies about agency management and operations, and mostly importantly what to measure and what you measure matters. I think we’re in alignment, so I’m looking forward to the conversation. For the listeners, give them a little sense of your background, how you came to be in the role that you’re in today and where the passion for this stuff comes from.

Speaker 3:

Great question. So like most folks I ran an agency, that was my first business. We did real estate virtual reality services back before you could do it with your cell phone. And very early on I ran up against the challenges of trying to figure out the basic questions in the business. Are we making money on clients and projects? Can I hire other people to do this work? And is there enough margin here? And all the reasons that that’s just way harder than I felt like it needed to be at the time. I walked away from that business because I figured out at that time, very different real estate market than what we’re experiencing today. But houses would sit for several years. Real estate agents were not really willing to invest a lot of money in this kind of very fancy digital assets. And so I figured out pretty early I was not going to be able to scale the business beyond me doing the work, which I didn’t really enjoy doing.

And so I walked away, got into software because I guess I’m a sucker for punishment. I don’t know. And a few years later got a phone call from a friend of mine that runs a software development agency out of Boise. And he just said, “Man, I spend hours every week building spreadsheets trying to answer these questions. There has to be a better way to do this. I want to solve this problem.” And I knew right away this had been a problem for myself. And so that was the impetus for Parakeeto to start. That was about four years ago now. And since then I’ve just been laser focused on trying to solve this problem better than anyone in the world. And really empowering agencies that don’t have the scale or the resources to buy enterprise software and put a data science team together, to be able to get the insights into the most important and very simple numbers that will drive the business in the right direction.

Speaker 2:

And so now in your current role of owning this company, you come alongside agencies and with the software help them be able to sort of measure the metrics that you believe are critical for agency success, correct?

Speaker 3:

That’s right, yeah. And we’ve really pivoted, we started as a software company trying to solve this only with software. And I think we realized at some juncture that we were part of the problem. The problem is not that there’s a lack of software, I think you and I both know this [inaudible 00:06:12]. But there’s no market that’s more ripe for a private equity roll up then, time tracking and project management. And it’s not that we don’t have good tools to capture the data. So much of the problem was actually the strategy. What data are we looking at? How is it structured? Are we measuring things in the right way and are our tools set up to give us that information? And then it’s the data cleanliness, because people are never going to be perfect at data input. They’re never going to follow the naming convention perfectly or track time at the right level.

So those were really the problems that we realized were undermining people’s ability to do this. So we’ve transitioned to much more of a consulting firm that’s leveraged by technology. So a lot of the time we spend with clients is much more strategic. And the simple thing is actually setting the tools up and tracking the time, once we’ve gone through the painstaking process of figuring out exactly how should that be done for this business.

Speaker 2:

So I’m curious, what do you think the most important metric for an agency to measure is? Before we hit the record button, we were discussing whether or not we would disagree on anything. So we maybe five minutes in and I already have a disagreement, so we’ll see where we land.

Speaker 3:

I’m excited. So this is a metric that I call delivery margin. And I’ve had to start calling it delivery margin because accountants call it gross margin or contribution margin, but half the time they’re not even measuring it in the right way. So I’m going to describe what I mean when I say delivery margin. It is the cost to earn a dollar of AGI essentially or their percentage margin on your AGI. So you want to get to agency gross income, which if you’re listening to this show hopefully you know what that is. It’s the revenue that actually belongs to your agency that you need to earn with your team’s time and effort. And then the cost of earning that agency gross income which is what we call delivery costs. That’s mostly payroll but usually a little bit of shared infrastructure as well, your Figma license, your stock footage library, four to 6% of your AGI and the audits that we’ve done typically falls into what we call shared delivery costs.

But then it’s mostly your delivery payroll. That to me is the thing that almost nobody can see, almost nobody’s paying attention to but is the foundation for agency profitability. You can go and try to cut your overhead all you want, half the time that’s not the problem. It’s about the ratio of cost in your delivery team to how much income they can generate, that to me is the foundation. And if that’s healthy, everything else tends to take care of itself as long as you’re not trying to buy everybody’s $700 office chairs and things like that.

Speaker 2:

Yeah. So as you said, it’s basically you’re looking at AGI and then looking at my labor costs, plus I heard you say four to 6% of your overhead costs. So in our world if agencies were living by the 55, 25, 20 rule, it would be looking at, let’s call it 60 to 63% of your operating costs, right?

Speaker 3:

Yeah, and typically what we’re advising clients is like you want to be above 50% delivery margin on the profit and loss statement. And if you can achieve that target closer to 60, of course if you can, but if you can achieve that presumably you’re going to spend anywhere from 20 to 30% of your agency gross income on overhead. And then that leaves you with a profit. But if you’re spending 20 to 30% of your agency gross income on overhead, which is probably what’s required to not basically lose all your team because you don’t have the right infrastructure, you don’t have the right systems to keep clients coming in, then if that deliver margin is any lower than 50% there’s really just not any meat on the bone. So that’s where your bottom line really comes from. Fiscal management at the overhead level can only go so far, if the fundamental foundation isn’t there then that’s the big problem.

Speaker 2:

Yeah. We collect full financials from the majority of our clients and certainly any of our clients who are in the peer groups. And so every year about this time, we’re looking at the aggregate sort of financial metrics of about 150 or 200 agencies. And it’s fascinating to me the average agency in the US makes less than 5% profit. They’re barely getting by. And AMI agencies, I think for 2021 they were at 17.65% profit. Not because they belong to AMI but because… I wish that were true that make selling a whole lot easier, but because we force them to measure it. And what I find is, and I don’t know about you, we teach a workshop called Money Matters every year and I’ll have agency owners that have been in the business for 20 years. And the basic terms of AGI and those ratios are still foreign to them. And so they literally are running their agency blind. So I’m curious what you find when you sit down with an agency client, how well versed are they in what we call agency math?

Speaker 3:

Very poorly most of the time. There’s exceptions, there are people that have done a lot of education, they’ve consumed some great resources. There are some great resources out there, although you have to go searching for them and they’re not easy to find always. But your content has been among the best content on this. You’re one of the few people that talks about this openly and introduces these concepts out into the world. But most do not have a solid understanding of this stuff. Very few, nine out of 10 clients when we look at their financial statements, they can’t easily discern their delivery margin because all their payroll is in one big account with everybody. All their software is in one big account with everybody. Their delivery costs are not isolated any way. Or they have picked up a handful of metrics here and there and they’re focused on those, but they don’t understand how they actually impact the business in the broader context.

So obsessions with utilization for example are… And to me, utilization is the most misunderstood metric in the agency world. And it’s the most dangerous as well. If it’s not used correctly, I think it could have negative impact on the business, substantially negative impact. And similarly, things like revenue per full-time employee, if you don’t understand the context with that metric, it’s kind of a vanity metric because it doesn’t tell you anything about margin. Like is 200,000 per FT good, well, if you’re in San Francisco probably not. If your team’s in… I don’t know, Delaware, maybe it’s better, I don’t know. But there’s a lot of misunderstanding. And I find that at the early stages of a business kind of getting up into that 20, 30 ish headcount, there’s just very little visibility going on. So that’s typically the problem we’re solving there is, let’s get you the visibility so that you can get past the stage of growth and empower your managers to make decisions.

But then we also work with larger clients that are in that 70, 100, 150 range. And often they have a lot of numbers, but they are being throttled by the level of precision they’re trying to achieve. They’re taking a metric like utilization and they’re piling all of this precision into it that’s adding no value to the strategic decision making that’s being done, but it creates all this operational drag. And so they come to us saying, we have an entire team of people that spend dozens of hours every week pulling time sheets and collecting all this data and all of these data points just to get us to the simple answer. And for them a lot of times it’s like really solidifying their understanding of how all these things connect together. So they know where things need to be precise and where they can add some levels of abstraction, and how all of these things kind of work together to lead them in the right direction.

Speaker 2:

Yeah, financial metrics for an agency is an ecosystem and you have to understand the whole ecosystem. So I want to go back to your delivery cost conversation. So when that ratio is on a whack, typically what’s the problem underneath that bad metric?

Speaker 3:

Well, there’s basically three ways to improve your delivery margin. If we think about the equation, it’s the ratio of AGI to cost. So the first thing you can do is decrease your cost. Of course, if it was that easy everybody would be doing it. But find people who are less expensive to do the same stuff that the expensive people are doing today.

Speaker 2:

At the same level of quality and speed and all the things that your seasoned people are good at doing.

Speaker 3:

Right, so that’s your first option. And for most people listening, that’s not the first door you want to open. So with that aside then the next question is, okay, well, how do we get the team that we’re currently working with to make more money with the available capacity that they have? And there’s basically two levers for that. The first is your average billable rate and the second is your utilization. So just to do some simple math, let’s imagine we have a team and they have 10,000 hours of capacity. And in all three of these examples, we’ll assume that the cost of that team is exactly the same. So if they’re doing a 50% utilization, that’s 5,000 hours per year that they are earning revenue for the business. And if they earn $100 per hour, then that team can earn $500,000 in AGI.

So depending on what that cost is that’s maybe good, maybe bad, I’m not sure. If we increase their average billable rate now at 5,000 hours per year to 125, now all of a sudden that same team is earning $625,000. So if you think about that relative to 500, that’s a massive improvement. That could be the difference between losing money and being very profitable. And if we combine that now with a 60% utilization, so we’re going from 5,000 to 6,000 hours of utilized time at that 125 rate, now they’re making $750,000 in AGI. That’s a 50% increase relative to the previous example. The team hasn’t changed, the payroll hasn’t changed, your overhead probably hasn’t changed-

Speaker 2:

No new clients, no new work, same work, yap, right.

Speaker 3:

Exactly. And so this is why I’m constantly saying, I think most agencies are suffering from indigestion and not starvation. They just happen to feel the same. And we see this all the time. People try to sell themselves out of this problem, it just makes it worse. So utilization and average billable rate are basically the other two levers. You want to look at them together always because you can trade one off onto the other. But that’s essentially the basic math between how do you take a team, assuming you can’t cut their costs and increase their productivity, you optimize for those two metrics.

Speaker 2:

Yeah. So you had said earlier that utilization is often sort of a misunderstood metric. Talk a little bit about that.

Speaker 3:

Yeah, so the first thing is not considering utilization in the context of average billable rates. So I think one of the biggest mistakes that I see agency owners make is the only exception to this maybe is if you run a pure time and material shop, and you can get away with growing through budgets and just your clients just still pays you for all that time. Now that’s an edge case-

Speaker 2:

But it’s very rare.

Speaker 3:

I don’t run into a lot of firms that are able to operate that way. So that case aside, assuming that you can’t just egregiously bill your client for all the time or your bright pricing things on flat rates, then holding your team accountable to a utilization target is just a really good way to motivate them to always make sure that they’re inflating time in the time sheets. But it’s disconnected from this idea of it’s actually not their responsibility to keep their utilization high, it’s yours and your project management teams. They don’t have any more work to do, but they’re going to walk into a team meeting next week and get their hand slapped because they weren’t at 65%.

Well, what’s Drew going to do if he doesn’t have enough hours or if doesn’t have enough work to do? Well, he’s just going to make the logo bigger and smaller until he hits his utilization target. So it muddies up your time tracking data which is the most vital set of information for you to measure, like what’s going on in the business. You don’t want to muddy that water. And if you think about how average billable rate is calculated, you take AGI that was earned across any section of the business and you divide it by the number of hours required to earn that. Well, if those hours are going up, the average billable rate’s going down. The net impact on your right AGI relative to your cost is not improving. So you’re actually not helping your profitability by increasing your utilization unless that comes with actually increasing it through giving your team more work to do or higher value work to do, so that’s one thing.

And then the second thing is the way that this metric is calculated, utilization is really simple on the surface capacity and billable hours. But when you start double clicking… And this is especially prominent in big organizations that we do audits for, we run stakeholder interviews. We ask 10 people on the team, what exactly is somebody’s capacity? We’ll get 10 different answers. Well, does it include time off? Does it not include time off? What about holidays? What about vacation time? And then what exactly is a billable hour? I don’t even like using the language billable hour because it has this connotation that if it’s billed to the client or not, it makes a difference. And in my mind it doesn’t. So we call it a delivery hour, but you ask 10 people what’s a billable hour? What qualifies, what doesn’t qualify?

And coming back to my earlier point, in organizations where the team is held accountable to utilization targets, well, you start to see weird stuff like working on the company website is now a billable hour because somebody complained in the meeting, well, that’s not fair. I’m getting slapped on the hand for poor utilization [inaudible 00:19:09]-

Speaker 2:

New business too, right?

Speaker 3:

100%. And so you end up with just this completely convoluted, way more complicated than it needs to be calculation. In my mind, utilization at the highest level is total capacity. So if you work 40 hours a week, your capacity is 40 hours and delivery hours. Any time spent working for clients, moving client deliverables forward, whether it increases or decreases the rate that they pay you or not. That is the fundamental calculation for utilization. It’s horizontally consistent so you can see better patterns. It’s simpler, so there’s less operational drag behind it. And it doesn’t consider productivity, it doesn’t consider any of those things. But those two aspects, how it should be used and how it should be calculated, I almost never see people get that right.

Speaker 2:

Well, and as you were saying even in the same organization, how the CEO defines it, how the CFO defines it, how an account manager defines it, nobody really has that consistent measure. And you’re right, it becomes… I think you call it a vanity metric. It becomes I have to hit this metric. But again, if you don’t understand the whole ecosystem what you may actually be doing is costing yourself money.

Speaker 3:

And I literally just got off a call before getting on this where somebody told me we bonus our team based on a utilization target, and I almost passed out on the call. That’s such a bad idea. To me, delivery margin is probably the… If you’re going to bonus your team on performance, probably the best metric to use because it’s tensioned properly. There’s all this tension built into it that considers utilization but also considers average billable rates. So maybe use that. But to bonus your team based on utilization, to me it’s going to drive really bad incentives and it’s not going to lead to good outcomes in my experience.

Speaker 2:

Yap. All right, so there’s two things that you said that I want to dig into. I want to talk about agencies billable rates, because it seems like especially in the last two years everybody should be paying attention to that with all the higher costs of employees and all of that. And two, you said something about time sheets being a critical metric and I harp on that all the time. So I want someone else to harp on it too. But first I’ll take a quick break and then we’ll go back to those two things. Hey there, just a quick interruption. I want to make sure that you are aware that you are cordially invited, not just invited but cordially invited to join our private Facebook group. All you have to do is go to Facebook and search for Build a Better Agency and you’ll find the Facebook group.

You have to answer three quick questions. You have to put in the agency URL, you have to talk about what you want to learn from the group and you have to promise to behave yourself. And that’s it. And then we’ll let you in and you can jump into the conversation with over 1000 other agency owners and leaders. And there’s a robust conversation happening every day. People are sharing resources and best practices and discussing everything from work, from home policies, to maternity and paternity policies, to biz dev strategies. So come join us and jump into the conversation. All right, speaking of conversations, let’s head back. All right, we are back and we are talking about agency metrics. All right, so let’s talk about what are you seeing around billable rates? Are you seeing most people are doing a flat across the board blended rate? Are you seeing some agencies are still doing the Bob is $200 and Bert’s 100 dollars? So what are you seeing and are you seeing agencies start to increase their billable rate?

Speaker 3:

It’s a good question. So I have this conversation probably four to six times a week. It’s one of the first things I ask clients about when we get on a sales conversation, because I want to understand how their business works and talk about our solution in that context. I see a lot of things going on and sometimes even within the same agency a lot of different things going on, where one department uses a blended rate when another one uses a rate card. But what’s common is that [inaudible 00:23:17], oh yeah, it’s crazy the amount of complexity I see-

Speaker 2:

Okay, I’m not seeing a lot of that, thank God.

Speaker 3:

That’s completely unnecessary complexity. But you know how it gets there, right? It’s you’re always busy, you add a new department, a new service line. It’s just kind of built off the side of somebody’s desk and this is how it works. And I understand the context behind why things get so messy, but I see all kinds of different things. Almost never is that hourly rate actually based on some idea of a margin target though that somebody wants to hit. The answer I get most often is, well, we kind of know what other agencies are charging or it’s based on the market. But underneath that, there isn’t this like, oh well, we know we want to target a 60 or 70% kind of margin on our average cost per hour, so that’s why we set the rate card where it is, or the blended rate where it is, or the day rate or whatever that looks like.

And then you have the value priced agencies that of course are pricing based on value. But what they’re often not doing is actually checking to see if there’s margin in the value price. It’s great price on value, get that price as high as you can but you should probably check to make sure that you’ve got enough margin for that price to actually make sense. Otherwise, you’re not actually realizing the benefit of a value based price. So we see a lot of different things going on. I will say that generally we are seeing people start to increase their pricing. Typically, inflation it’s kind of a good excuse but it’s not generally based on an actual calculation of, oh well, if we want to be targeting a… Let’s call it a 70% delivery margin when we quote a project out to a client. It’s very rarely based on anything like that. It’s just about looking around and saying, well, other people are doing it so we’re going to do it too.

Speaker 2:

Right. So what are you seeing out there for average blended rate right now?

Speaker 3:

The last few audits that we’ve done, it runs the gamut. And I want to actually spend a little bit of time talking about why… I don’t even really talking about average rates because I don’t think that’s an important thing to be paying attention to. But agencies love to compare each other or themselves to others. So we’re seeing in the states probably around 150 to $160 an hour is what they want to charge. Now, is that their effective rate? Rarely, but that’s what they say they want to charge or that’s the number they’re using to multiply the hours that they’re estimating to get to the thing they put in front of the client in an optimistic case.

Speaker 2:

Okay, let’s talk about that. That’s what I’m seeing too but honestly, that’s what I’ve been seeing for 10 years. So one of the things I’ve been saying to agencies is, you’ve got to look at what your costs are and how, especially with people. The increases there and you have got to adjust accordingly. Again to your point, otherwise that margin between AGI and your delivery costs just gets smaller and smaller and smaller. It’s all of your expenses, but particularly your people expenses have gone up exponentially in the last couple of years. And a lot of agencies are saying, well, you know what? We went virtual or we’re hybrid or whatever, so we’ve saved some money on overhead or whatever. It’s like-

Speaker 3:

It’s like 4%, 5%, it’s not that much.

Speaker 2:

All right, talk about time sheets. Why are they important? I love this speech by the way, so you just pave at it.

Speaker 3:

Well, this is interesting because I just want to qualify this whole conversation just by stopping at the language time sheets, because what we’re going to talk about now is not actually time sheets. Time sheets are one way of measuring or keeping a record of time that was spent on a project. It’s not the only way to track time. So I want to talk about time tracking and why I think time tracking is important, because it’s easy to wage war on time sheets. They suck. I agree with that too. I don’t like filling them out, nobody does. But not tracking time is like running a restaurant and not tracking your food costs. You have no idea what a dish costs you. How could you possibly set a price for that? How could you get any information really about where things are working, where things are not working.

So is it possible to run a firm without tracking time in some way? Sure. But what you’ll be relegated to is agency-wide financial statements that you probably get 30 days after last month was closed 12 times per year, to give you a sense of if the business is healthy or not. And you won’t be able to get really any information beyond maybe some departmental level kind of splitting of invoices and payroll to understand where the problem might be. And so time tracking is what unlocks your ability to much more quickly and much more cost effectively start to measure often on a weekly basis. So you go from 12 shots on net per year with financial statements, to maybe up to 52 shots on net with non-financial metrics to understand what’s going on, what clients or projects, what service lines are working or not working, if your estimates versus actuals are good or not.

And this is the thing that I think I get on sales calls with people and I’m like, you should be tracking your time. And they’re like, well, we’re profitable so obviously we don’t. And it’s like, okay, well, come back and see me when your team doubles in size and now you have attrition because everyone works 80 hours a week because you can’t scope stuff. The foundation of agency operations is the ability to essentially plan out a project and get to within a reasonable percentage of contingency on that. If you can’t do that, then you can’t resource plan. It’s hard to know when to hire. The capacity management becomes difficult. That’s the whole other reason that I think this stuff is important and it’s the lifeblood of all that reporting. It’s really a core piece of the infrastructure that’s required inside of operations. But I’ll qualify this, time sheets are not the only way to get that record. They’re some business model considerations but there are other ways.

Speaker 2:

All right, let’s talk about that. What are other ways that you teach clients how to track time? Because you’re right time sheets suck, but for most agencies it’s the way they get the… Well, most agencies say they do time sheets but they don’t. Yeah, it’s sort of like recycling. Everybody says they recycle, but if you actually watch their behavior that is not the case. But how else do you help clients track time?

Speaker 3:

Yeah. So there’s one other methodology that I’m a really big fan of and I call this resource based time tracking or resource plan based time tracking. Now there’s a qualifier on this. A company like MediaMonks for example, can do this because when they sell a project like a big enterprise website development project, they’re going to take an engineer. They’re going to put that engineer on that client and he’s going to work on that client for six months, seven and a half hours a day flat out. And they’ll do that with a cross-functional team, they’ll take a full-time designer, they’ll take a half a strategist, a quarter of an architect. And now a project manager who’s probably the only person on your team that can get excited about tracking time in some way is responsible for tracking time on behalf of their pod of eight, 10, 12 people.

But they’re able to do it because the dilution of clients at the person level is one, two, three, maybe four clients at a time. There’s not that much complexity. So through daily check-ins and standups and status calls, that project manager can do a decent job of saying, oh Drew, okay, you worked a little bit late last night on that client, let’s make that adjustment. And the resource plan, once you break that out into an export, same exact structure of information as a time sheet, but you’re able to create this kind of centralized time tracking model. So your ends team doesn’t have to fill out time sheets but you could still walk away with that record of time. But the qualifier on this is you can’t be diluting your team across all these different clients and having them pop around through a million things per day. If you’re in that situation, time sheets are right now unfortunately the best answer that we have to that kind of a complex situation.

So you have to push it out to each individual and all kinds of other challenges that come with that. But that’s the other alternative. So if you can get your business model in a place where you’re able to do these kind of larger deployments of people’s time, then you could walk away from time sheets without actually sacrificing the underlying data.

Speaker 2:

But as you’re saying, you have to basically only do big enough projects that people aren’t chunked out over 10 clients. And two, you have to have a good project manager.

Speaker 3:

Right, yeah.

Speaker 2:

Or a project manager at all, right?

Speaker 3:

Yeah, that’s right.

Speaker 2:

So at what size do you see agencies adding that function, because a lot of agencies really struggle with the idea of adding a project manager?

Speaker 3:

Yeah, typically we’re seeing this happen right at the point where the founder could no longer be… They’re being overloaded by direct reports. So six to eight is kind of where you stop being an effective manager. That’s generally when we start seeing somebody really kind of take over the project management role. And then very quickly they also become the operations’ person, whether they’re qualified to do it or not. It’s just like, oh, I don’t want to think about this stuff anymore either. So this is often the reason that their metrics are a mess, because you have a project manager as a full workload and then they’re being asked to figure all this stuff off the side of their desk when it’s not their area of expertise.

Speaker 2:

So as your advising agencies, hey, it’s time to get a project manager, how do you describe the skill are required to be a good project manager?

Speaker 3:

What a great question. Actually I spoke to the team at the digitalprojectmanager.com about this because account management, project management it’s like product managers in a SaaS company. You ask 10 of them what they do every day, you get 10 wildly different answers. But what we agreed on was the central responsibility in my mind of a project manager is to build and maintain the project plan, because every stakeholder in the business relies on that project plan to some extent. The team relies on it to know what they should be working on, when it needs to be done by, et cetera. The account manager needs to know what’s going on with the client and the status so they can communicate. The management team needs to know, the operations team needs to know. So the project manager that’s their core responsibility. The reason I think we see so much variability in how they spend their time is, they have to now index to whatever area of the business is the weakest at providing them with inputs in order to compensate for that.

So if the sales team’s shitty at scoping stuff, the PM’s going to spend a lot of time scoping stuff. If the delivery team’s bad at tracking time and updating tasks in the project management tool, they’re going to spend all their time babysitting the delivery team. If the operations team doesn’t have their stuff together, they’re going to index towards that. And God forbid, all of those things are a mess which often is the problem then that PM’s running around like with their head cut off just freaking out all the time, so that’s my view on it.

Speaker 2:

Yeah, I think it’s one of the most misunderstood roles in an agency. I think they’re hard to find somebody with that skillset, that has the emotional intelligence to get everybody to do what they don’t want to do on time and on budget. And has the attention to detail and the ability to sort of drill down where they need to. But also has the ability to look at something and say, you know what? This is on track, on target. I don’t have to drill down to this. And have the nuance to know when something’s about to go off the tracks.

Speaker 3:

And I think that is… Because we see the path to operations as typically through project management. And in an early agency the operations’ person is often just the most senior project manager. They’ll just kind of bequeath that title one day. And what’s fascinating to me is they’re Achilles heel typically. And making that transition is they were rewarded for being hyper precision focused when they were PM, and it starts to hold them back at operations because they’re not able to comfortably abstract things away from the most precise possible way of measuring it. Which is what you need to do to scale these ideas up and simplify them around the edges so that the executive team can have like three numbers to look at. And it doesn’t take you all week to figure out everybody’s half day that they took to go to the dentist to give it utilization calculative, for example. So that’s a really tough skillset to be able to develop as a PM who has been rewarded so much for being hyper-focused on the details, that’s what made them successful.

Speaker 2:

Right, that would be a difficult transition for sure. So as you look out across, so we’re inching into the end of the year, what do you think the biggest challenge for agencies is going to be in 2023?

Speaker 3:

That’s a really good question because there’s so much uncertainty with where the market’s going to go. There’s going to be a recession if there’s not going to be a recession, [inaudible 00:35:37] you’ve been having that conversation since COVID like two years ago. And to be honest, I think a lot of it is going to come down to maintaining the right amount of elasticity in their delivery team so that they can handle these dips that occur in the market. So over the last couple of years I’ve seen this pattern repeat itself, and I’m curious if you’ve seen this as well. You have a market event, COVID happens, or Apple stock drops a lot one day, or Facebook’s valuation gets cut by 70%. And then you have this conservative reaction from the market where nobody’s buying anything for two months. And then all of a sudden they go back to buying things.

And so you have this roller coaster ride of the pipeline’s full, the pipeline’s dry. We had all these deals, now there’s nothing, there’s no work to do. And that utilization roller coaster really kills your profitability over a long period of time, especially if you’ve got this kind of very rigid team structure. So if I was advising an agency that has a little bit of uncertainty, maybe they’re serving software companies as their primary client, I would say really get down to the core of what those important roles are. And think about where you can add a bunch of freelancers or an external vendor to add some elasticity, so that when those things happen it’s not going to cut into your bottom line quite as much. And you’re able to flex your capacity with how the market is shifting, because I think we’re going to see a lot of pipeline volatility if these market events kind of keep creating scares and drying things up for a quarter at a time.

Speaker 2:

And it’s interesting because of course you’re right, I’m having this conversation every day because agency owners they’re the most skeptical optimist I’ve ever met in my entire life. So they live in fear all the time. But they’re also convinced that the prospect X is going to sign on the dotted line tomorrow. So they don’t want to let Bob and Bert go because they’re going to need that work tomorrow. And of course it takes prospect X six months to sign if they sign at all. So yes, having this conversation but I will say right now agencies are turning work down.

They are saying no to opportunities. So they have more opportunities in the last year I think, than I’ve seen in a long time. The problem is they can’t staff to get the work done. So they’re so busy just trying to get the work done that they have already committed to. That every day I’ll have an agency owner say to me, well, I have an RFP on my desk or I have a proposal request on my desk that I’m going to have to say no to because I don’t think we can do the work.

Speaker 3:

Yeah, well, and is that the worst thing in the world? From my perspective-

Speaker 2:

That’s a lovely problem to have.

Speaker 3:

That’s the best possible context to be selling to. If we come back to this indigestion versus starvation problem, I think this has been the drug that too many agency owners have been hooked on its revenue growth without considering revenue quality, especially when they do a lot of retained work. And we’ve seen clients grow 30, 40% year over year without adding any staff, in fact, reducing the size of their team because we showed them insights on, hey, look at how unprofitable these dozen clients are. And so now when they get a new deal come in, instead of just adding it onto the pile, they go to that client and negotiate for new terms. If the client leaves, they replace it. If the client stays, well, now you have too much more profitable clients. But I don’t think that’s such a terrible thing but agents owners do tend to be really worried about turning work away. I really enjoy personally turning work away because it means that I can sell a cat and not a dog and I think that’s a good place to be selling from.

Speaker 2:

Yeah, I think that every agency who’s not looking at the numbers is literally paying for the privilege of doing work for some other clients. Is actually coming out of the agency owner’s pocket to do the work. And if they’re not looking… And I guess this isn’t a good note for us to sort of end the conversation on, I believe and I’m curious if you believe it too. I believe an agency can have double digit profitability at any size when they manage the business to the key metrics.

Speaker 3:

Absolutely. To me anything under 20, 25% like profitability relative to AGI is under performance. There’s a missed opportunity there. And what’s interesting is you talk about the trouble of staffing, the most profitable agencies that we’ve ever audited are the ones that have designed their business model to deliberately push all of the high risk work out of there four walls into an external vendor which creates a lot more elasticity. And they just hang onto the high value stuff, the strategy, the client management, maybe the project management. And so yes, a lot of them are big. They might only do a few hundred thousands or a million dollars in revenue, but the quality of that revenue to them is so very high. And I’ve seen agencies doing lots of revenue that are losing money. So revenue is not the indicator to your point, it’s the metrics, it’s the margins and I also very much believe that.

Speaker 2:

Yeah, I think the ultimate vanity number in agency life is gross revenue. Someone will say, well, I want to get the three million or five million or 10 million, and I’ll say why?

Speaker 3:

Your valuation’s not even based on that.

Speaker 2:

That’s right.

Speaker 3:

It literally adds no value.

Speaker 2:

It is an absolutely irrelevant number. But I get the human instinct of… And agency owners for the most part are very type A and very competitive and they love to shoot for targets. And if they don’t know about AGI and they don’t know about some of the things we’ve talked about, the number that they see in ad age and ad week and everything else is gross revenue. And so they think that’s the bullet chase.

Speaker 3:

Yeah. Nothing to add.

Speaker 2:

So if you have one piece of advice for agencies as we wrap up, what is it?

Speaker 3:

Go figure out your delivery margin today, go talk to your accountant. I’m happy to leave a video that I shot in the show notes on exactly how to calculate this. Go figure out what that number is and make sure that it gets to over 50% on your profit and loss statement consistently. That’s it. Do that and your life will be a lot easier.

Speaker 2:

Yeah, beautiful. That’s a great one. So yes, I would like you shoot me that video so we can stick it in the show notes for sure.

Speaker 3:

Will do.

Speaker 2:

Yeah. I knew this would be a great conversation. Thank you for making the time to be with us today and sharing your expertise. And you’re right, you and I definitely speak the same language as we talk to agency folks. It’s good to hear the validation of what I’m talking about in teaching as you talk about the fact that that’s what you’re talking about in teaching as well. So thanks for being with us.

Speaker 3:

Well, thank you for blazing the trail. I wouldn’t be here talking about this had you not been one of the pioneers in actually speaking publicly about the financial side of the agency. And I just have had the pleasure being able to go really deep on this and spend a lot of time on it. So I appreciate the opportunity to come on and talk and this been a lot of fun.

Speaker 2:

If folks want to track you down, if they want to talk to you, if they want to learn more about the software or your services, what’s the best way for them to find you and to initiate a conversation?

Speaker 3:

Yeah. So @parakeeto.com we’ve got lots of content. I’m talking about this stuff all the time. We also have this great free toolkit that has a bunch of spreadsheets and templates that help you calculate some of these numbers. So make sure you check that out. I also have my own podcast, the Agency Profitability Podcast. And Drew’s been a guest on that show among many others so you can check us out there. And you can find me on LinkedIn, I’m wearing a shirt with birds on it. There’s not a lot of Marcel Petitpas out there, so feel free to connect with me there. I’d love to hear from you.

Speaker 2:

Okay, we have to talk about the bird shirt. So do you wear a bird shirt every day? Sorry, everybody, but this has to go on a little longer?

Speaker 3:

I don’t. So I own three of them and I wear them for public appearances. It’s like a branding thing. I feel like I have a very forgettable face. I’m a very normal, average person. I’m five foot nine, I weigh 170 pounds, I’m a size medium everything. So I needed some way to kind of create a personal brand and the bird shirt, I saw it in an ad Parakeeto the brand. And I just thought I’m going to buy a few of these and that’ll be my thing.

Speaker 2:

Okay. So every couple of years you just have to refresh the shirt count.

Speaker 3:

Knock on wood I haven’t stained one of these. And my fiance would tell you that is a statistical anomaly beyond anything she’s ever seen. But all three are perfectly clean, so far I haven’t had to replace any.

Speaker 2:

I Love it the bird shirt. And I just love that. That’s perfect. That is a great way to end the show. Thanks again for being on the show.

Speaker 3:

My pleasure.

Speaker 2:

All right guys, so Marcel gave you a lot of good data. Some of it we’ve talked about before. Some of it we haven’t talked about as much as we should. So I will tell you there’s going to be some links in the show notes to some videos, to that tool Kit he was talking about. Make sure you go and avail yourself with this, because I’m telling you what we talk about in a lot of our workshop, at the end of the day the worst day for an agency owner is the day you have to let someone go, not because they’re bad but because you don’t have enough money to pay them. And there is no reason for that. That’s a crime. There is no reason for you not to be able to run your agency in a way that is very profitable for you, for your family, for your team.

And so some of these metrics and honestly none of them are that complicated, but it is a matter of understanding what they are, understanding how they fit into that financial ecosystem and understanding that is your job. Every day an agency owner says I hate math, I totally get it. But it is your job to understand these numbers and to run your business by these numbers. And with some spreadsheets and some dashboards, it’s not complicated, it’s not hard. I swear to God, it’s easy math but it is vital math. It is the math that keeps you healthy and profitable. So check out the stuff in the show notes and then by all means, start to apply this stuff because I agree with every word he said. And every day he’s looking at the agency financials, I’m looking at agency financials and we can tell within five or 10 minutes why somebody’s not profitable.

And so if we can tell that, you can tell that for your own agency. So do not relegate this or delegate it or ignore it. It is the core of your job to understand how your agency can be profitable. All right, huge shout out and thanks to our friends at White Label IQ as you know, because I tell you every week they are the presenting sponsor of the podcast. They do White Label design dev and PPC. They’ve been an AMI member for about 20 some years. Good people doing great work for many AMI agencies. And you can reach out to them and learn more about them @whitelabeliq.com/ami. And as always, I just got to tell you I am super grateful that we get to hang out with each other every week for an hour or so. I feel very privileged that you make time for this podcast.

And that I kind of try and keep my end of the deal by having amazing guests who are teaching you things every single week, that are above and beyond what you can find in a book or that you learned in school because it’s very agency specific. And Marcel’s a great example of that. We talked nitty gritty agency stuff today and I think that’s my job, is to bring you folks like that every week. And I will keep doing my job and you keep coming back and that’ll be a beautiful thing. All right, I’ll be back next week. Thanks for listening. Talk to you soon. That’s a wrap for this week’s episode of Build a Better Agency. Visit agencymanagementinstitute.com to check out our workshops, coaching packages, and all the other ways we serve agencies just like yours. Thanks for listening.