Episode 5

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Drew McLellan is the Top Dog at Agency Management Institute. He has also owned and operated his own agency over the last 20-years. And all through the year, he straddles the fence of working in his agency and working with 250+ small- to mid-size agencies in a variety of ways.

AMI works with agency owners by:

  • Leading agency owner peer groups
  • Offering workshops for owners and their leadership teams
  • Offering AE bootcamps
  • Conducting individual agency owner coaching
  • Doing on-site consulting
  • Offering online courses in agency new business and account service

Because he works with a lot of agencies every year — he has the unique opportunity to see the patterns and the habits (both good and bad) that happen over and over again. He has also written two books and been featured in The New York Times, Entrepreneur Magazine, and Fortune Small Business. The Wall Street Journal called his blog “One of 10 blogs every entrepreneur should read.”


What you’ll learn about in this episode:

  • How to know if you are spending too much time on client work
  • Why your agency’s growth suffers when you spend your time on client work
  • The specific areas where you should actually be spending your time


The Golden Nugget:

“You can’t grow your agency without daily time mentoring your employees.” – @DrewMcLellan Click To Tweet

Click to tweet: Drew McLellan shares the inside knowledge needed to run an agency on Build a Better Agency!


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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. Welcome to another episode of Build a Better Agency. This is going to be a little different. I don’t have a guest with me today. I’m going to just talk to you about something that I think is important for us to have a conversation about, so this just you and me having a conversation around something that I talk to a lot of agency owners about, and I want to make sure that you and I have the conversation as well.
As I am teaching workshops or in networks with agency owners one of the topics that often comes up is how overwhelmed agency owners are with all the things that they have to get done in a day. So inevitably the conversation comes around to how are you spending your time?
Often I will say that much to the agency owner’s dismay I chastise them for how they’re spending their time, so brace yourself, because you may feel that as well.
For many of you, you’re spending way too much time on client work, and if you are in the weeds of client work you cannot, you absolutely cannot own or run a successful scalable agency. It’s just impossible.
There are a couple of exceptions to this rule. Number one is if you’re a small, small shop, three, four, five people, then oftentimes you’re right, everybody has got to be hands on deck and doing client work. Or if you have multiple partners in the business, then one or two of the partners can be involved in the client facing work, as long as one or two of the partners is taking care of the things we’re going to talk about in this podcast.
But for the lion’s share of you, you are solo owners in agencies larger than a handful of people, and you have got to get out of the weeds of client work. Quite honestly, I think one of the reasons why you haven’t is because you’re really good at it, and it’s reassuring to be good at something, so you can do client work with your eyes closed. You always know the right answer. You know what to do.
Regardless of your discipline, whether you’re creative or on the account service side, you’re good at it and clients gravitate towards you, so it’s very gratifying. But the truth is that if you want to grow your agency you’ve got to get out of that rut. If you are still serving clients you are not servicing the agency. That’s just the bottom line.
Here’s a good litmus test. If you got hit by a bus or abducted by aliens what would happen to your agency’s monthly AGI? If you say that it would really drop or it would really be cut in half or whatever language you want to use, then congratulations. The truth is that you have just created a company so that you could have a job, and it’s no different than the job you had before you started the agency other than you work for a bigger jerk of a boss, because your other boss always paid you. When you’re the owner sometimes you don’t get paid, or you’re the one who’s working till 8:00, 9:00, 10:00, midnight, while everyone else is going home.
So really all you’ve done is simply traded one job and one boss for another job and boss, and guess what? This job and this boss are worse than the one you had before. You’re probably working worse hours for worse pay.
That’s not right. You have taken all the risk of starting an agency. Your name is on the bottom line of the line of credit. You are the one who sweats bullets about making payroll, so there’s no reason why you should work yourself into the ground because you’re spending your time doing the wrong things.
You need to stop being willing to tolerate burning the candle at both ends and in the middle to get it all done because you think that you need to stay involved in client work. Not only is it a lousy job for lousy pay, but the truth is you can’t grow your agency because, I hate to break this to you, but you know how in traffic meetings everybody talks about the bottleneck and they kind of look around? Well, what they’re not saying to you is you’re the bottleneck. You are the sticking point. You are the big black hole where they drop stuff off and they have no idea when it’s coming back, or it always comes back at the 11th hour, right before it’s due to the client.
You know what? You’re probably good enough for what you do that you can pull that off, but not only are you not doing the things that you should be doing, you are also shortchanging the client by doing things at the last minute. But even worse, the biggest danger in all of this is you are setting an example for your employees that that’s the way they should behave.
The truth of it is you’re probably the only one in your agency who can pull it off. For everybody else they’re not quite good enough or quite fast enough to pull that off, or they end up doing something that’s sort of a B level work rather than A level work that you can sort of do in your sleep, so you’ve got to stop setting this example.
The truth of it is I want you to stop getting so involved in the client work that you are getting in the way of your agency scaling and growing, and, by the way, the more embedded you are in client work the less likely you are building an agency that anyone would want to buy some day.
So you’re literally sort of strapping this thing around your neck and dragging it around the block by yourself rather than you concentrating on where you should spend your time and letting your team concentrate on where they should be spending their time.
Let me tell you how I believe agency owners should be spending their time. This is my version of the agency owner job description. Granted it’s idea, so I’m not suggesting that you will ever have a week that is exactly like this. I know better than that. But if most of the weeks were somewhere in this ballpark, I promise you you will be amazed at the results.
Let’s look at sort of the big chunks of time and where you should be spending it. About 50% of your time as an agency owner should be spent on new business. I know. I know you don’t like it. I know you don’t want to do it. I know most of you are chasing the mythical magical beast that is the new business guy, but I’m here to tell you that A, it’s a myth, B, for the one out of 80 or so agencies that can find a new business person who actually can open doors, most of those people are good door openers, but they’re not great closers. There is no better closer in your agency than you.
The truth of the matter is is business owners and business leaders want to talk to other business owners and business leaders. They want to have holistic conversations around business problems, and there is no one in your shop who’s as well equipped as you are to have those conversations.
I’m telling you that agency sales is a role that you were born to play. You don’t have to be pushy. You don’t have to be aggressive. You just have to be helpful and you have to be smart, and you are already both of those things.
When you help a business owner or marketing leader, I promise you you will see profit come out of that when you step back into the new business role. And again, if you want to have a new business person who’s knocking on doors and opening doors and teeing up opportunities fine, but do not expect them to be able to close as successfully or as often as you can. Number one, they’re not going to hit out of the park as often as you do. Number two, they are not going to be able to command the same price that you can.
So after you spend 50% of your days on new business where else should you spend your time? Well, about 20% of your time should be spent mentoring your staff. When I teach boot camps one of the common themes that I hear over and over and over again from your staff is they want more from you. Not more money, not more time off, they want more of you, more of your time and attention. They want to be like you. They want to be as good as you are, and they know that the only way to do that is to learn from you.
I’m a huge proponent of one-on-one meetings. The way those work, very briefly, is that’s the direct report meeting with their supervisor once a week for 20 minutes. The direct report is responsible for that meeting, so there’s a form that I’ve written about on the website, agencymanagementinstitute.com, or you can shoot me an email and ask me for it.
But there’s a form that you could modify for any position in your agency, and it looks at things in sort of three ways. In sort of the top portion of the form it asks about big picture goals. What are you working on in this quarter? So that person, your direct report, has to tell you what they’re working on, what they’re trying to get better at, and what they’re actively doing to get better. Then you can start giving them feedback and coaching them and catching them doing it right. So all of that is great conversation.
Then the next part of the form is asking them about what they’re working on now, and what’s kind of getting in the way of them being successful, and what can you help them do to move whatever obstacles are in the way.
Finally, it sort of gets down to the nitty-gritty of is there anything I should know? Is there any change in a client and that sort of thing? I promise you, in and out in 20 minutes. The other advantage of that is is when your employees know that they have some dedicated time with you they’re much less likely to interrupt you repeated throughout the week. They’ll sort of save it up for their one-on-one meeting, so that’s another bonus.
But the biggest bonus is you cannot grow your agency if you don’t grow your people, and you can’t grow your people just by hoping that they get it by osmosis. You need to take some time and pour some energy and attention into your people so that they can get better.
All right, so you’ve done new business, you’ve done some mentoring, now what’s next? Well, you know what? You need to run the business. You need to be looking at the financial metrics. You need to be looking at some dashboards. You need to be making sure that you’re crunching the numbers and that you are in the right ratios of how many employees per $125,000 of AGI, all of those sort of things you need to be tracking and paying attention to so that you know that your agency is healthy.
By the way, this isn’t just you. This is probably you and your leadership team getting together on at least a quarterly basis, if not more often, looking at the goals that you’ve set and how you guys are coming on achieving those goals, and if you’re nowhere near it then putting a plan in place to get you closer to the goal by the end of the quarter.
Again, this is not about you getting quagmired in the minutiae. This isn’t about you data entering stuff into the accounting software system. This is about you looking at the bigger picture and being able to make very good, decisive and quick decisions around the data that you have, but obviously in many cases someone else, a CFO, a bookkeeper, a head of account services, is going to be serving up that data to you, which is exactly how it should be.
You need to be a nimble and attentive leader, and when you have time to do that you can move your agency in the right direction and you can react to things very quickly.
The last two things that I think you should be spending your time on are very critical. The first one is you are the keeper of your agency’s vision. You need to know where you’re taking the agency. You need to have a one year plan, a three year plan, and you need to have milestones between now and the three year or now and the one year of what you need to do episodically throughout that course of time to get where you want to go.
Then you need to make sure that you share that vision inside your agency. So remember employees want very much to work for a place that has a purpose, that has a reason for existing, and you need to be communicating that with your employees, and you’re going to have different levels of conversations around that with different employees.
Obviously with your leadership team you would have a different conversation than you’re going to have with the rank and file, but you absolutely should be talking to everybody on a regular basis, not once a year, not even twice a year. Minimum quarterly, and ideally monthly you would be driving people towards that vision, because you’re all looking at it in the exact same way and you’re all heading in the same direction.
Last, but certainly not least, you need to spend some of your time loving on your clients. Now this is not daily client work. This is not you taking change orders or working on their media. This is about you hanging out with the decision maker on the client side and doing something away from the office, so it’s golf, it’s the theater, it’s a ballgame, it’s a spa day, whatever you and the client like to do together.
Maybe it’s just lunch or drinks, but it’s you asking them, “Are we doing a great job? Are we exceeding your expectations? Is there anything else that my team can and should be doing for you?” But then also talking to them about their goals and how they’re being evaluated. Look for these great opportunities where you can tee up ways that you can make your client look like a superstar, and hopefully bring some more work back home to the agency.
This is you talking business with your clients, helping them identify some of their bigger objectives and some of the obstacles that are in the way, and helping them figure out how to move those obstacles so they can get to and achieve and exceed those expectations.
I know it sounds like a lot. I know not once did I say fill out a meeting report or call a client back or run to the creative department to see how they’re coming on an ad. Absolutely I didn’t say that, because you know what? That should not be your job, and the longer you stay quagmired in account service, the more you have to acknowledge that you are choosing not to grow your agency. You simply cannot grow it if you’re in the day-to-day weeds and if you are creating the bottleneck.
I really welcome you to give this some thought, to maybe make some minor small little tweaks in your day. So, again, even if you just build in a half an hour a day for new business right now and sort of exercise that muscle a little bit, and maybe you start these one-on-ones with direct reports, and by the way, that you have your leadership team doing this with their direct reports… This should be something that’s infused throughout your entire organization.
Maybe you set up some coffees or drinks or golf or whatever with some of your best clients in the next month or two, to have that conversation with them and to let them know how much you appreciate them, and to be able to say to them, “You know what? Here’s what we love about you as a client. You allow us some creative freedom. You don’t have unreasonable deadlines,” whatever it is you love about them, and then say, “You know what? Is there somebody else that you know like you that would be a great fit for us?”
There’s nothing wrong with having that conversation either, but loving on your clients, having the one-on-ones, and getting out of the day-to-day business. If you concentrate on that and then you can circle back around with the visioning and some of the other things. Don’t wait too long. I’m talking months, not years.
But please start to migrate yourself over to this sort of a job description model, where you are really doing what you’re best at, which is leading the troops, which is thinking big picture and vision sort of things. It is about connecting with clients. It’s about bringing new and better and bigger clients in the door, but it is not about servicing clients.
I hope this was helpful. I’d love to hear from you, [email protected]. If you have questions or you disagree or agree we’d love to hear from you. Next week I will be back with another guest, who’s going to have some pragmatic practical things to talk to you about to help you make your agency bigger, better or stronger and more fun to work at for you, because you know what? Again, you’re taking all the risks and you should get the upside too. That’s what I want for you.
Thanks for hanging out with me today. I’ll talk to you soon.
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.