Episode 281:

One of the biggest bottlenecks in many agencies is that the agency owner is the only person who can develop strategies for clients or new business pitches. As you know, this causes a host of problems, not the least of which is then the agency owner can’t focus on doing his/her job. Most owners feel stuck – believing that strategic thinking is not something you can teach. But what if you could?

Adam Pierno has a long resume working with well-known agencies and brands. When his experience on the creative side led to a realization that there was no methodology that could help agencies bake strategic thinking into their business model, he put his research and experience into authoring two books on the subject and now helps agencies looking to enhance their strategic approach.

In this episode of Build a Better Agency, Adam and I talk about the necessity to expand an agency’s strategic thinking beyond one or two people. We look at specific ways to do this that can empower your entire team to think strategically. We also discuss the errors many agencies make in communicating strategy to clients and prospects and how to leverage strategic thinking as we begin to move beyond the pandemic.

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.

Strategic thinking

What You Will Learn in This Episode:

  • How to infuse strategic thinking throughout an agency.
  • Different ways agencies can approach strategy.
  • How to soothe the conflict points that can develop when strategy expands to the who team.
  • Specific ways agencies screw up strategy during a pitch.
  • The need to create a story connection between the strategy and the creative.
  • The place for strategy in pitching.
  • The importance of having a captivating storyteller share the strategy.
  • How to help a team become better strategic thinkers.
  • The need to document the steps of your agency’s strategic thinking.
  • The secret to making clients want to stay with your agency as we begin to move into the next normal after the pandemic.
“Everyone has a responsibility to participate in strategy.” @apierno Click To Tweet “Let’s move forward nimbly and be simple in the choices we make in a way that can make the greatest impact.” @apierno Click To Tweet “It’s a very delicate balance between under-explaining and over-explaining strategy.” @apierno Click To Tweet “Successful strategic thinking is about showing the client how you thought about their problem and the clever way you turned a problem into a solution.” @apierno Click To Tweet “We need to find ways to be efficient but we can’t do so at the expense of the quality of the product. Strategy is the beating heart.” @apierno Click To Tweet “Create the playbook now for what future success looks like.” @apierno Click To Tweet

Ways to contact Adam Pierno:

Additional Resources:

Speaker 1:

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

Drew McLellan:

Hey everybody, Drew McLellan here with another episode of Build A Better Agency. Welcome back. Thank you so much for giving us your time and attention. I know how busy you are, so I’m really grateful that you spend a little bit of time with me every week. And this week, I promise you, it’s going to be worth it. Before I tell you about our guests and what we’re going to talk about, I want to remind you that we have a great workshop coming up. It’s called Running Your Agency For Growth And Profit, and then I add in parentheses and a little sanity. But anyway, that workshop is in Chicago on April 6th and 7th. And we’re going to cover all of the best practices around the operations of your agency.

Drew McLellan:

So we’re going to talk money, we’re going to talk about BizDev, we’re going to talk about process, we’re going to talk about HR issues, your team. We’re going to talk about strategic thinking, we’re going to talk about taxes, we’re going to talk about… We’ve got all kinds of money things that we’re going to talk about, we’re going to talk about leadership things, how to build a leadership team, what you want to get out of your leadership team. We’re going to talk about your own leadership and what your day should look like. We’re also going to spend some time thinking about what you want your day and your year to look like and how you can get closer to that.

Drew McLellan:

So we cover a lot of pieces in this workshop. Two and a half days, so it’s a full day on the 6th and we end at three o’clock on the 7th. But I promise you, lots and lots and lots of great content that you can immediately put into practice. I look forward to seeing some of you there. If you want more information about the workshop, just head over to agencymanagementinstitute.com and look under the, How We Help, and you’ll see the Workshop tab and just grab that, you can see the workshop with all the details. All right?

Drew McLellan:

One of the things that many of you struggle with is that you are the only person in your shop who really can think strategically, who has the capacity to look past the obvious and ask the questions that need to be asked, but aren’t the surface questions, aren’t always the same questions we ask every client. You are the one that connects the dots. It’s great that you have that talent, but the challenge with that is that you are the only one who knows how to do it. And so, in many cases, the agency owner… There’s two problems with this. Number one, you become the bottleneck. Everyone needs some of your time and attention if they’re going to put strategic thinking into the work, and so oftentimes you’re stretched super thin and you are slowing projects down because you can’t get to it, or you can’t write the strategy, or whatever it may be.

Drew McLellan:

And two, you doing strategy is not on your plate, that is not something an agency owner should spend a lot of their time doing. When I outline, as you know, how agency owners can spend their day, a bunch of strategic thinking time on behalf of clients is not on that list. And so as always, I just want to remind you, when you’re doing a job that someone else inside your agency should be doing, then what that means is no one is doing your job because you don’t have a backup, you don’t have a fail safe, it’s either you or it doesn’t get done. And so the important agency owner work doesn’t happen because you are entrenched in strategy.

Drew McLellan:

We have often talked about the Mercer Island Group workshop where they teach a methodology for teaching everyone around strategy. And I’m telling you, I highly recommend that workshop. We won’t be doing it until probably next January, but we will be back at it as soon as the Mercer Island Group folks are ready to travel. But in the meantime, my guest today is a gentleman named Adam Pierno. And Adam has a long resume of working in agencies that you’ll all recognize, doing work for brands that you would all recognize, and really has been doing strategy for a lot of his career.

Drew McLellan:

Adam has written a couple of books. One of them is called Under Think It, again, about strategy. So it’s a marketing strategy guide book for everyone, is the way he describes it. And then he’s also written a book called Specific: How Brands Draw Inspiration from a World that Doesn’t Want Any More. Both books are excellent reads, I highly recommend them. But Adam’s role in most of his agency work today is around helping agencies figure out how to bake strategic thinking into their agency at all levels so that one or two people are not carrying the strategic load anymore. And so what I want to dig into with him is how we go about doing that.

Drew McLellan:

Let’s not wait any further, let me introduce you to him and let’s start picking his brain. All right. So without any further ado, Adam, welcome to the podcast. Thanks for joining us.

Adam Pierno:

Oh, Drew. It’s so great to be here, thank you so much for having me.

Drew McLellan:

Strategy is one of the S words, I think, in agencies. Everybody wants have it, but no one’s quite sure how to get it. So give everybody, before you and I dig into what it is and how to infuse it through the agency, give everybody a sense of your background and how you came to have this expertise, because I think it’s an expertise that a lot of agency owners and leaders covet.

Adam Pierno:

Yeah. And Drew, what’s so funny about my experience is that it aligns with the stories I hear from agency owners. I come from a totally non traditional way to get to strategy, so I started as a creative. In my first role as a creative director, there was no strategy group, there was no planning group, so the account director, the media director, and I formed a team that worked together on briefs using tools for media planning, using account service techniques, and then using discipline as a creative to work together to do that. Over my time as a creative director, which I think I was a creative director at a couple of different shops over five or six years, I really fell more and more in love with the data, the research, honing the information about the business that I was trying to help and the customers that we were trying to reach.

Adam Pierno:

And I eventually burned out on creative, which I think is pretty common, and ended up coming back to… I’d worked in-house at Verizon in a strategy leadership role with the title creative director, and then came back to a small agency in Phoenix called Santy, which has since been acquired and founded a strategy practice inside that agency. And the background I had as a creative director, I had learned a lot of things as a creative at J. Walter Thompson and Hill Holliday and worked with planners, but I had never received any training. So as we were successful in building the strategy practice, and as we grew that from just me to a team of six, seven people and all of a sudden it’s generating revenue and generating interest in the business, somebody asked me in my review, “Well, how are you training your staff?”

Adam Pierno:

And I was like, “Well, I’ve never been trained, so I actually don’t have an answer to that question.” And that’s where I really started thinking about, how do you formalize these processes? How do you make this work so that it doesn’t all just live in my head or in a Google Doc somewhere? And that I think is a big sticking point for a lot of agencies, how do you turn it into a system?

Drew McLellan:

Absolutely. And at what point in all of that did you decide that you wanted to write about strategic thinking and process and all of that?

Adam Pierno:

It was that same review, it came, I had my kid’s spring break was coming up and I had the week off and I had the review on a Friday, and so I left like I typically do. It was presented to me as, almost as a brief to write. How are we going to train your team? And how are you going to grow this into something bigger than just you as an employee? I went and I opened a Google Doc and I started writing, okay, “These are the areas that I think are important.” I started gathering links and things that I had collected. And then I was reaching out to people on LinkedIn and Twitter and email to people I knew in strategy, so leaders at agencies my size, people across bigger agency networks, and saying, “Hey, how do you train your team?”

Adam Pierno:

And everybody was responding back to me saying, “When you find it, send it to me because we need it.” It didn’t exist. And this was in I think, 2015, 2016. Since then, more things have developed. But at that time, really nobody. I mean, even people like Julian Cole and some of the people that have training programs now didn’t have none. As I kept adding to the document over the course of that week and reorganizing the Google Doc, I realized by the end of the week, like, “Oh, this is actually an outline. If I just fill in a little bit here and describe each of these steps, this could be a handbook that I use for my team.”

Adam Pierno:

By the time I got halfway through it as a manuscript, I was like, “Oh no, this is just a book. Anybody can read this. This is valuable for anybody.” I wanted to have my team read it obviously, but then I realized, “Oh, I could just make this broader. I don’t have to make it our method. This is what people need to know, in the absence of training, here’s some basics you need to know,” for the first book, which was called Under Think It.

Drew McLellan:

When you introduce the concept of teaching your team how to be a strategic thinker, what was the reaction? Because I think a lot of people think like, “Well, I’m a creative or I’m a… ” fill in the blank, whatever it is, “So that’s not my job.”

Adam Pierno:

Right. Yes, that is actually a problem. And that’s for small and mid-sized agencies, Drew, you experienced this a lot, I bet.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah.

Adam Pierno:

They want to have a strategy center, like a core of strategy because they know strategy is supposed to feed things. And in a lot of cases, and what I was afraid was going to happen was it gets centered on the one brilliant person who sits in the corner and answers all the sh the “strategy questions”. That’s not good for the agency in the long run. Then everybody is waiting for that person, they become a bottleneck for intelligent thinking. I’ve heard you talk about this before, it creates that pause moment where people say they don’t even feel empowered to answer the question because they need that genius person to come answer it.

Drew McLellan:

And a lot of times that genius person is the agency owner, and so they get pulled into client work and strategy work, which means that everything that’s on their plate to do that only they as an owner can do doesn’t get done.

Adam Pierno:

That’s right. And that slows down the genesis at the very beginning of a project, critical points in a project. You can’t be waiting on that one person, and especially not if it’s the principal who has so many other things they need to be focused on, it’s not healthy for the business in the long run. So to answer your question, the response was, thank you. The fact that it was a book, and then turned it several keynote type presentations and several learning modules that could easily be broken out, was embraced by the agency. And then what I found really interesting pretty soon after that, agencies in town, Phoenix and Scottsdale is not a great advertising community in terms of…

Adam Pierno:

In New York and in cities like St. Louis and Chicago, the agencies are like a brotherhood, they’re a kinship, but in Phoenix, it’s a little more parochial, a little more separation, a little more, not quite cutthroat, but more competitive and less, “Let’s all go sing kumbaya together after.” But what was nice was hearing from people at other agencies, “Oh, hey, the owner bought 20 copies of your book.” “Oh, hey, would you come in and talk to our agency across the street?” That was a feeling that I was like, “Oh, I think I must be onto something because we’re able to break down these walls.”

Adam Pierno:

And it felt nice to go in and be able to say, “Okay, cool. Let’s just put down the hatchets for a minute. Let me tell you what I know, and ask me questions because you’re going to make my thinking better on this through, what did I miss? What did I not factor in? How does what I say apply to only Santy that I thought was more universal or more global?”

Drew McLellan:

You ever go back and revise the book? Or are there things that if you could go and revise it, you would say, “Oh, shoot, I need to emphasize this or add that”?

Adam Pierno:

I have not revised it. I’ve revised small sections, but I have been thinking about doing an updated second run because I don’t think I go deep enough into the application of strategy. It’s broken into three phases, it’s broken into the foundational phase, the campaign phase, and then did-it-work phase. Phase three is like, let’s see how we did and assess and go back. There was something missing in there about how do you get from campaign planning, the campaign phase, to making sure that everything that you said in the beginning, in the foundational phase is actually playing out and figuring out what was valuable and what wasn’t for next time.

Adam Pierno:

Because you could follow the book and say, the intent is pick and choose the things that apply to your assignment. But you could waste a lot of time if you overthink every part of the strategy for your campaign or thinking about parts of the business that do not pertain to the campaign. And as you know, we’re trying to be efficient, we’re trying to be smart as we can, but we don’t need to reinvent the wheel on things we can’t affect with our columns or our advertising.

Drew McLellan:

As you took the book in it’s, probably infancy form, back into your own organization and you started to train it, what was the response of the employees?

Adam Pierno:

Empowerment. It was nice to see creative people… The book is meant to be… it’s not a textbook you don’t read it and circle some things and put it away. It’s meant to be a handbook that you can always go back to. So for young strategy people to be able to have something on your desk that you’re stuck when you’re writing a brief or you’re on something, you just don’t know what to do next, just flip through it and stop on a page, that was always the intent of it and it was really nice to see it on the tables in the office where the creative team would concept and know that people were obviously picking it up and thumbing through it and doing the same thing, almost flipping through and saying, “Oh, we’re stuck. What would we do here?” Or, “Here’s another way to think about it.”

Adam Pierno:

And having the creative team and other people, on the social team, for example, use it to debate briefs, not just, “Oh, this is the handbook. Adam told us to do it this way.” But going back through it when they’re reading a brief and saying, “Well, how did they get from here to here? Let me go look at Under Think It and see if there’s something in there, because it’s something just doesn’t feel quite right to me.” And a lot of the book is about making the best decision you can and then figuring out how to talk through it, making the best decision you can and figure out how to move forward with the information have, because we always work with an incomplete picture and incomplete information, as I’m sure many of your peers and smaller and midsize agencies experience.

Adam Pierno:

It always feels like we’re one piece of information short. So it’s like, we still have to move forward and make the presentation of the most complete picture we have.

Drew McLellan:

Yes. It’s interesting. I think some agencies get paralyzed waiting for perfection with a strategy and other agencies barrel into creation without a strategy at all. So I think part of being a good strategic shop is being able to find that happy medium of, “We have to keep progressing, but we can do it thoughtfully as we learn more and we start putting the puzzle pieces together to see what the story actually tells us.”

Adam Pierno:

Yeah. And for agencies that add strategy. Let’s say you’ve been in business for 10 years and you’ve had informal strategy, but then you decide it’s time to formalize them, add a strategy team or a person or whatever it is. Then it becomes an expectation that that person, he or she, well, let’s wait until they give us the final answer. And it can really change the culture of an agency. If it was a creative shop and they’re used of that guns-blazing, “Go, go, go,” that could be a culture killer to have now everybody expected to wait for that brief to be handed down from up on high.

Adam Pierno:

It really does not work that way. It doesn’t work that way in big shops. If you talk to the luminaries in agency strategy at R/GA or Widen, they will tell you the strategy is a strong point of view, but there’s a conversation and a debate and it goes on, it evolves over time. “Here’s our point of view, here’s what we think, but let’s talk through together how to make it stronger and how to make it apply better to what the work we’re actually doing versus where the brief started,” which is probably at a different point in the work.

Drew McLellan:

Do you believe that, depending on your role in the agency, you have a different relationship with strategy or how you contribute to strategy? Or do you think that the strategy is born out of the team and it doesn’t really matter where it comes from?

Adam Pierno:

Yeah, that’s a great question. I think everybody’s relationship with strategy will be a little bit different, and I don’t think there’s a single way to do it right based on the agency, like I said. Every person who comes to the agency should be supporting the overall agency culture and improving it. And like I said, if you’re a creative agency, there may be a way that the strategy could serve that better. It could be injected in a way that is like rocket fuel for that creative team. That’s already probably pretty smart. Just because you don’t have strategy in your title, doesn’t mean you’re not a strategic thinker.

Adam Pierno:

The best creatives you’ve ever worked with are intuitively, they’re not writing briefs, but they are solving that problem with secondary insights. A lot of times I’ve written briefs where the creative team has come back with something that’s one hop away from the brief and been able to explain to me, “Well, you said this. We think that’s true, but we think because of what you said, the customer behaves in this way, that’s our secondary insight, which is still true to the brief.” Amen. You want the thinking to move forward? One of the core pieces of Under Think It that gets played back to me a lot that people either laugh or shake their head is, you don’t have to be right. If you’re the strategist, you don’t have to have the answer.

Adam Pierno:

Which was me writing a note to myself, “Hey, man, take the pressure off. If someone disagrees with you, listen.” Because you don’t have to win the argument. What you have to do is synthesize what they’re saying and determine, “Can I fold this in? Will it make the work better? Will it meet the objectives? Or is this person just wrong and defending something that’s off brief or not right.” So I think everybody has a responsibility to the brief, everybody has a responsibility to participate in strategy, but you can’t expect… I don’t want a copywriter writing a creative brief, I want them writing the ad or whatever the output is based on the brief and reverse testing the brief in that way.

Drew McLellan:

So after you trained inside your own organization, what changed?

Adam Pierno:

Well, I think the biggest change was how strategy flowed through and change the discourse. In internal check-ins, in kickoffs, in meetings inside the agency, it wasn’t that we were talking about the strategy, but the conversations were more centered around the tenets. It’s about foundation. Okay. Now, it’s about campaign. It’s about the objectives. We were able to move through the conversations in a more orderly way instead of just talking about the idea, the client, the politics of it, we’re able to get it back to the work much more simply. And it also gave us a way, one of the things that really came out of Under Think It was that people gravitated to this idea that the title itself Under Think It was playing down how much weight people put on strategy as a word.

Adam Pierno:

And there was this black turtleneck thing that was happening with strategy at the time, which is cresting now. I think you and I are on Twitter and you see strategy Twitter is like a very dark, serious place. It’s not that much fun, but it should be. And so what kept gravitating from Under Think It and what gets played back to me a lot is this idea of simplifying things and saying like, “I know. I could do two years of research.” And believe me, you know what, Drew, if the client has the budget and the time and it’s the right thing to do, let’s do the research. But man, I got this client-

Drew McLellan:

That doesn’t happen very often, right?

Adam Pierno:

No. They need something on the air in 30 days, we don’t have time, we’ve got to figure out how we’re going to do it. So let’s move forward nimbly and let’s be simple in the choices we make that can make the biggest impact. And that kind of conversation after Under Think It inside the agency of, “Hey, we could do 100 things, but these three things would have the biggest impact in moving them to their goal or winning this pitch or whatever the next goal that we have is,” it gave us a way to prioritize and it gave us a common language to talk about it inside the agency. I think those were the biggest changes that I saw. When I wrote the book, we were an agency that was growing and firing on all cylinders, so the timing was pretty good.

Adam Pierno:

If you want to do an experiment, that’s a fun time to do it because it’s like throwing lighter fluid on it?

Drew McLellan:

Right. Right. So now the agency has been the “trained” and is starting to flex that muscle of thinking more strategically throughout the entire organization. Were there rub points between departments or were there places where the account service people were like, “Hey, you know what? You’re stepping on my toes. I’m the one who’s supposed to understand the client and think about… ” Where were there places where folks bumped into each other? Because they’re doing something new and now everyone’s sharing a lane rather than this is one person’s job, so were there some conflict points?

Adam Pierno:

Anytime that there’s a new process, you’ll have that friction point because inevitably, either someone feels displaced or some discomfort with some new edge that they didn’t have to deal with before and now they have to one way or another. So I’ve experienced this myself personally that, “Oh, okay. Now I have to hand this to that person to check it before it goes to step seven? Okay then, I’m going to be a dick about it and I’m going to make it just a little bit more painful for that person than it should be.” We all have ego, we all have those things. What was good about writing a book for your own agency that you’re working in was, it’s written in the way we were working. It was more explaining how we wanted it to work.

Adam Pierno:

But yes, there were times where somebody could call out and say, “Well, wait. Whoa, whoa. What about this step? Hey, hey, whoa, are you trying to skip this part you said in your book here?” I did put it in writing, so now I’m kind of beholden to it. And like I said, you can’t always do everything by the book. In a lot of midsize and smaller agencies, the question of who owns the relationship or who owns the understanding of the client and the brand is always in play. And at our agency, there were clients that came in the traditional way, and there was an account person. There were clients that came in directly through the creative director, and the creative director owned that relationship. And there were clients that came in through strategy, and one of those was a big Fortune 50 brand that came in through a strategy pitch that we won.

Adam Pierno:

And so there is a give and take of, “Okay, on this account, we’re going to skip the step and we’re going to do step three, it will be step two.” And everybody has to figure that out on the first couple of assignments. You want to do that as quickly as you can. But overall, I don’t think there was more dysfunction after the training then than before, I think it was the usual agency stuff that lives everywhere that makes agencies the fun place that they are.

Drew McLellan:

A lot of people who are listening think of their agency as being strategic, they ask good questions during the discovery meeting, they know that the agency is… One of the things I love about agency work is dumb people don’t survive there very long. I love being surrounded by smart, usually super funny, really complex interesting people. I think that a lot of agencies believe they are strategic. So paint a picture for me, what an agency that asks good discovery questions, how that differs from how you would define an agency that really is strategic.

Adam Pierno:

It’s funny, the agencies that I help now, they come to me usually with a very similar setup for why they think they need the help, and that is, they’re in a pitch, and the pitch went really well. And Drew, you’ve been in enough pitches to know the flow of that pitch meeting, where it’s like, “Okay, here’s the team introduction. Here’s the problem we’re solving. Here’s the strategy. Here’s the creative.” And they almost always present the same situation, “We went into the pitch, we had great chemistry, we got blank stares during strategy, they loved the creative. Then after, someone took my guy aside and said, ‘Hey, you were just a little off on the strategy.’”

Adam Pierno:

And what I think it is, is not that they didn’t ask great questions or not that they didn’t maybe pull the right research, what they failed to do was tell the story in a compelling way that connected the people at the table to the great creative work that they saw. They felt like of those four or five steps of the presentation, there was a drop off in how those people got to this answer. To me, that’s what clients are buying. They need to have the great chemistry and that they need to know that there was sound reasoning and logic from their brains to the creative work, that they could explain up when they get in trouble or when something goes awry, that they could say, “Hey, maybe it didn’t deliver 100% of the results, but look at the logic the agency used, we’re smart because we employed these people and they gave us this backing.”

Adam Pierno:

A lot of strategy is like we’ve already said, there’s great creative directors who can do killer strategy intuitively and not document it, but it’s about how do you document it and turn it into a narrative that everybody around the table can really sink their teeth into and discuss, and have a build a meaning in too, that they all understand and rally around. So the creative is almost like, yeah, of course, it’s the inevitable conclusion that the agency is going to do great creative, you can’t be in business if you can’t do that.

Adam Pierno:

It’s how do you contextualize it using strategy and using the problem that you’re solving to frame this as a great creative solution.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. I want to talk a little bit more about the place of strategy in pitching and in content and all that, but let’s take a quick break and then we’ll come back and tackle those

Drew McLellan:

Hey there, do you have an up and comer inside your agency who’s become like your right-hand person? How are you investing in them? Who are they surrounding themselves with? And who are they learning from? You might be interested in taking a look at our key executive network. It’s built to help you groom the leaders in your agency. It’s designed to surround them with other AMI taught agency leaders, and it’s facilitated by one of AMI’s top coaches, Craig Barnes. They meet twice a year and they stay connected in between meetings with calls, Zoom get-togethers and email.

Drew McLellan:

AMI agency owners call it one of the best professional development investments they’ve ever made. Head over to agencymanagementinstitute.com and look under the Membership tab for key executive network. All right, let’s get back to the interview.

Drew McLellan:

All right. I’m back, and Adam and I are talking all things strategy inside an agency. A lot of agencies believe that the reason that they get hired is the chemistry, the reason that they get hired is the creative, and you were just talking about this before the break, what I heard you say is that agencies often don’t tell the strategic story well, because they haven’t knitted it together in a framework. So they make assumptions that the client already knows or can intuitively see the dotted line between, here’s your problem, and here’s the creative, and somehow the client just understands the strategic thinking behind it.

Drew McLellan:

What role do you think… Well, two questions. One, I find a lot of agencies give away the strategy or at least surface level strategy. So could they meet with a prospect, ask them for a proposal and in the proposal, they share the strategy as opposed to saying, “Look, this is deep thinking, it requires time. It requires resource, we should get paid.” So I want to hear your thoughts about that. But secondly, how do we present strategy in a way that the client goes, “Oh.” Sometimes the client goes, “Oh, I hadn’t connected those dots,” or, “Oh, these guys did connect the same dots, they are on point with me”?

Adam Pierno:

It’s a very delicate balancing act between under explaining and over explaining because you get slapped on the wrist if you go to basic and you lose the room, if you jump too many bullet points ahead and they haven’t been able to connect how you got there. So it is a balancing act, it’s tricky and I know why it falls off for a lot of agencies. But you have to be able to very quickly demonstrate, “Okay, we understand the basics, we’ve mastered the basics with your help. Thank you. Here’s,” I’m going to make up a number because it might be three things, it might be one thing, it might be five things, “Here are the critical pieces based on the basics that we’re going to build a strategy on that are important pieces of context for you.”

Adam Pierno:

And then you go into those so that they understand that, okay, they were listening, they took good notes, they asked the questions, and now I’m going to see the questions I answered manifest in, where it falls off, Drew, is they want to know that you actually went back and thought about it and expanded on it. They don’t want a book report, that’s what I call it a summary, that’s not helpful, but they also don’t want you to have come back with 100 slides of Google research that is not relevant.

Adam Pierno:

So the story and making it relevant to them is about demonstrating how you thought about their problem and the clever or the mental gymnastics you did to turn it into something from a problem into a solution. And that’s really, it’s just about being smart about which pieces you turn into the context that get them excited, because just like, we talked a lot about Ryan Reynolds today as this wunderkind creative and everybody online we’ll give him grief because well, yeah, it’s easy if you’re a celebrity.

Adam Pierno:

What everybody forgets this strategy directors or the people presenting strategy should have some of the same gravity that a creative director has. And that’s what Ryan Reynolds has. He’s able to sell great creative because people swerve. That’s what creative directors jobs used to be, that’s what Don Draper did. That’s why they come in the room and everybody goes, “Oh, Whoa, she’s going to talk, let’s listen.” We want to hear what the rock star says. Well, if your strategy team doesn’t have someone who can deliver that with the gravity and say, “I’m about to speak and it’s going to be important,” without having to say that, it becomes-

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. That probably falls flat in most meetings.

Adam Pierno:

Yeah. You were asking about how agencies deploy strategy to clients, a lot of times it’s like the way they treat social media. We know we need it, there’s an intern over there, I don’t know, she’s on Instagram, have her be the social media director or halfway present the social. And then the client’s like, “Well, okay. I understand that she knows how to use the tool, but is she captivating? And is she convincing that she’s an expert?” You need someone who can do that at the table and for our strategy.

Adam Pierno:

And maybe it doesn’t always have to be the person who did the work. That’s another thing is, think about who’s the best person to tell the story.

Drew McLellan:

I think it’ll be interesting to see, we’re recording this right after the holiday in January of 2021, so I also think all of this has been thrown on its head through COVID and everything being a freaking Zoom meeting. I think even prior to COVID, we were losing the ability to perform and to tell story and to put an element of gravitas into the way we presented our work. I think that we cut to the chase so fast and every everyone’s in such a hurry that we don’t really take time to savor any element of the presentation when we are in front of a prospect.

Drew McLellan:

Whether that’s in a coffee shop one-on-one across the table for some small agencies or it’s standing up in a boardroom and giving a formal pitch or presentation. At the core of what agencies do, we’re storytellers. And we seem to have lost a little bit of that show, I think. And so I worry now that everybody is going to be like, “Well, we don’t have to get together, let’s just get on Zoom, it’s faster, it’s more efficient, it’s whatever.” I worry that that’s going to go away even more. How do we make sure that’s part of…

Drew McLellan:

Because I don’t know about you, but every agency I’ve ever worked in the people there are natural storytellers. You’re trying to get work done and they’re telling stories, and they’re great stories and you get sucked in. And so it’s not that the ability is lacking is that we don’t infuse it instead into the way we talk to prospects and to clients. I think sometimes we forget we have to sell into clients too. So does being more strategic lead to being a better presenter and storyteller, or are those two, in your mind, two completely separate skills?

Adam Pierno:

I think they are separate skills, but the people who have that storytelling skill excel at communicating strategy because it’s such an important parts of let people be able to follow a thread. You’ve met those geniuses that have solved the problem, but it’s a beautiful mind on their whiteboard and they can’t get the words out and everyone goes, “Well, I don’t know. I don’t know what to do. I don’t know how to follow them.” The Zoom suffocation, and let’s just throw a Google Doc together and everybody pile in and create the work, it’s efficient.

Adam Pierno:

And for agencies that do maybe building on an existing campaign, that can be effective when everybody knows the campaign and everybody knows the customer and everybody knows it, I get it, why we do it that way, and especially during COVID like, okay, all bets are off. But I agree with you that not just the performative aspect of presenting the work and the value that that creates, but when we know we have to present it and there has to be an element of, theatrical is too big, a word, but showmanship, I guess, is a better word.

Adam Pierno:

Then guess what we do, we rehearse and we sit around a table together and we debate, well, you said this word, but I think that word is not the right word. And I miss those conversations, you don’t have those anymore. You just have, because it’s on Zoom, you have nine squares, and one person’s looking at their clock already at the beginning of the meeting because they have another Zoom right after. And so it’s like, “Well, I’m going to just tell you what you need to know because I’ve only got eight minutes, sorry I got to jump off.”

Adam Pierno:

And it’s like, “Well, can you tell me the tagline before you jump off?” So it’s a challenge for agencies to stay on top of their game in this environment, but I agree with you, even before this, efficiency is a challenge for strategy and for great creative and for agencies overall, because we need to figure out ways to be efficient, but we can’t do it at the expense of the quality of the product.

Drew McLellan:

Right. One of the other things that I think agencies aren’t great at is training and educating their team. I think they might do one or two big things a year, but in terms of… Doing good strategy, isn’t easy, and for some people it comes naturally, other people’s it does not. How do you recommend an agency that, let’s say somebody listening right now is like, here’s a sentence I hear all the time, “I wish my employees could think more strategically, I get stuck doing all of the strategic stuff. I look at the work and go, but you’re missing this or that or whatever.” This is an agency owner saying this.

Drew McLellan:

This is a person who has a deep desire for their people to be more strategic, but frankly has no idea how to help them be more strategic. What I hear a lot from agency owners is, “I just do it, I just know it in my head, but I don’t know how to teach it, I don’t know how to coach it.” So how do you recommend we help our team get better at being strategic thinkers and contributing to the strategy of the work?

Adam Pierno:

Yeah. I think that those people that come to you with that problem, I’ve worked with those people as well, and the biggest problem is that they haven’t mapped out the process that gets them to… Because I’ve worked with that brilliant agency owner and who knows where the step was nest or where the question the client is going to ask. And what they haven’t done is document it, their thinking and their process. The step before training is the documentation. Here are the seven steps, here are the 10 steps.

Adam Pierno:

And every agency owner, or every person that wants to delegate strategy or wants to share the responsibility of strategy has to take that first step. You can use Under Think It, you can use one of 100 frameworks that you can find online, you could call Drew, but somewhere you have to say, “Okay, these are the steps I want my staff to follow.” Or, “I’m going to sit down with my client and ask them what steps they want us to follow, what makes a compelling strategy document to them?” That’s a great thing I’ve done before. Find out what will be paid off by the client, what will be rewarded.

Adam Pierno:

That takes so much of the burden off training because now we have a shared lexicon, we know we have a framework that we can agree on. And then before someone comes in with a presentation, they can check it themselves and say, “Oh, you know what? I didn’t do this thing, I didn’t fill out this piece of it, so there’s going to be missing, there’s going to be questions around this.” And at least before they start presenting where they are, they could say, “Hey, I didn’t get all the customer information in here yet because I missed it or because I’m waiting for information from the social team or whatever it is.”

Adam Pierno:

But then at least it doesn’t derail the entire conversation every single time where that person is saying, gosh. They’re just waiting for what did the strategy team mess or what did their staff miss as it relates to strategy. But step one, man, give people literally a list, give them the bullets, give them a slide template that they can start by filling in. I always make this joke about jazz, you can’t just sit down and be a free form jazz player on the piano. You have to learn the scales first, you have to play the rudiments a million times and then you start to break the rules.

Adam Pierno:

Then you start to say, “Oh, I can do step five before step three,” and look how beautiful that is in this case. But if you don’t give people the scales, man, they don’t know. The beautiful thing about creative people and agency people is they solve problems, you give them a deadline and they come back with an answer. That’s wonderful, but if you want it done a certain way, you have to give them a framework, you have to give them some help so they know what they’re working towards and how they’re doing it.

Drew McLellan:

Given this weird moment in time, and I’m sure you’re being asked this question quite a bit and I am as well, what’s coming around the pike for agencies in 2021 and 2022? Where do you think strategy plays a role in that and how given this odd moment that we’re in the middle of and knowing that it’s going to take us a while to climb out of everything that COVID has laid on the business community and all of that, strategy, more important, less important in a different way, where should agencies say, “You know what, I really need to hone my strategic shops given this era is here.” Is there a special place for strategy now when the world is in such flux?

Adam Pierno:

Definitely. Right now, this is what I see happening in different verticals, everybody’s getting ready to hit the street, everybody’s at the starting line. As individuals, I can’t wait to be able to go to a restaurant again in the fall, or however, when they keep pushing that deadline back. Whenever they tell me I’m allowed to go, I’m going. We’re not going to, I thought for a while, we would all hibernate indefinitely, but even me, I’m pretty cautious person. As soon as they tell me, I can go sit at a bar and watch a baseball game, I’m going.

Adam Pierno:

I think clients are working with their agencies and biding their time, and when the gun is fired, I think a lot of things are going to be in play. If I were an agency owner right now, I would be proactively creating for each of my clients, a strategic document that says, your customers in your context for your business, in six months, this is what it’s going to look like. And I would be proactively bringing them that answer that has them thinking about staying with the agency next year, versus the treadmill that we’re all on right now.

Adam Pierno:

Everything’s a rush, everything is more urgent than ever for no reason. There’s no reason why it has to be this way right now, but I think because we’re human and because people in marketing are so driven, we’re working extra hard to show value and to keep the wheels moving. Man, take 10% of your time, 20% of your time and start putting it towards future thinking so that the client can see a roadmap and stay with you or have a reason to, because when commerce resumed some back to normal, we are going to see pitches like we’ve never seen before, or just outright changes in agency dynamics.

Adam Pierno:

People at agencies are going to leave jobs and people at brands are going to change jobs, you want to be entrenched there and demonstrate that you’ve already been thinking about what it looks like to be successful in the new future, which is a little bit of a dice roll, we don’t know exactly what’s going to happen.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. But I think of the point you made earlier was that role of strategy is to demonstrate to the client that you’ve been thoughtful about the work because, and this has never been more true, although I think we were in this state prior to COVID as well, I just think COVID magnified it, but if I’m the director of marketing and I can’t sell up the food chain, the thinking and the work that my agency has done, not only is the agency at risk, but I’m at risk. So I am not willing, as we’ve been watching people get laid off and downsize, I’m not willing to gamble right now.

Drew McLellan:

So in my mind, one of the things that an agency that is strategic, truly strategic and can walk their client through the strategy so that the client then can merchandise that through the organization, that makes me the client feel more secure. And I think a lot of what’s going to happen in this next season is going to be about, I did not survive this thing to lose my job, I want to be protected.

Adam Pierno:

Yeah. And create the playbook now for what that future success looks like. A lot of strategy is about forecasting and making predictions, and that’s uncomfortable for people. I remember I was doing a training session and somebody raised their hand said, “You seem to be talking about predicting results a lot, well, I can’t do that.” And it almost got a little contentious because I was like, “Well, that’s the job.” You have to be able to make some a forecast of what do you think will happen as a result of your campaign.

Adam Pierno:

Whether it’s a digital campaign and you think you can put metrics to it, or you have some sales insight that you can say, here’s how I think it’s going to impact that. But if you can’t do that, I don’t know how you could recommend a strategy without that.

Drew McLellan:

But when you think about it, though, whether you’re strategic or not, we never offer a client a creative solution, or a campaign that we think is going to have no results. So we’re always predicting some results, whether we articulate that or not.

Adam Pierno:

Totally. And so I think in this moment, agencies have a real chance, and whether this is about building a strategy practice, or just about being successful in 2021 and 2022, it’s about saying, “Okay, this is where we are, this is what we think is going to happen.” And maybe you even say, “Here’s two paths that could happen, and here’s our approach for each of those plans. And we want to be the agency that is already working on this with you, so when we go back to it, we’re ready to hit the ground running.”

Adam Pierno:

That’s what I would be doing right now if I was inside an agency, is showing them that you’re thinking forward about their business and how to expand it because as you just said, they didn’t just survive this in their job so that they could be rolled out as soon as things go back to normal. So make them successful.

Drew McLellan:

Fascinating. And this has been a great conversation. If folks want, obviously they can go to Amazon and buy your book, but if folks want to learn a little bit more about you and the work that you’re doing, what are the best ways for them to track you down or stalk you or?

Adam Pierno:

They could stalk me, they could sit out in front of my house here, but they could go to Adampierno.com, and it’s a lot faster transit for them than traveling to my house. You can find me on Twitter, which is @Apierno. You can DM me there is the quickest way to get ahold of me or you could listen to the Strategy Inside Everything, which is my podcast, where I have people from agency life, brands and across the marketing universe, talking about their passions and how they think about strategy.

Drew McLellan:

Last question for you before I let you go.

Adam Pierno:

Yeah, shoot.

Drew McLellan:

What is the biggest misconception you think agencies have about strategy?

Adam Pierno:

The biggest misconception is that strategy is a single thing, that it’s a function, that it exists as it’s necessarily as its own vertical inside the agency, versus I think a strategy is the beating heart, it should be threaded through everything. And if you’re doing things that don’t tie back… All strategy is making good decisions based on the information you have. If you’re not doing that and not able to explain to your client why you made that decision, but you think you have to bring in the strategy person to answer that question…

Adam Pierno:

As a client, I’ve been on calls where I’ve asked a question and they say, “Well, the strategy person isn’t on the call, so we can’t answer that question.” You should have that answer. You know what I mean? If I ask a media question or something that’s really a subject matter expert, I need the person who understands Google to answer a Google technical question. That’s different, strategy should touch every part of your agency and every part of the relationship. And that doesn’t have to be one person or a specific group of people.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. Great point. Thanks so much for being on the show and getting us to think a little differently about this. I think this is a critical breaking point at a lot of agencies, and I think it’s a place where many agencies want to get better, they just aren’t quite sure how to get it out of the owner’s head and into the rest of the agency. Hopefully this has been super valuable for them to listen to us chat about this. So thanks for being on the show.

Adam Pierno:

Absolutely. Thanks for having me. It was great talking to you.

Drew McLellan:

You bet. All right, guys, this wraps up another episode of Build a Better Agency. Adam gave you a lot of things to think about, a lot of ways, although he didn’t outright challenge you, I want to outright challenge you. For many of you, you believe that you are the keeper of the strategy. And I think he’s given you several initial points, things that you can do to try and weave strategy and strategic thinking throughout your organization. So if you’re feeling the pressure of being that bottleneck, of being the only person who can look at a campaign and go, but you didn’t think about that, or what about this, there is a solution out of that.

Drew McLellan:

And I encourage you to try and bake that solution into your organization because honestly, it improves everybody’s work. And I don’t care how they come into contact with your client, I don’t care how they contribute to the work that you do, the more strategic we all think, the better the outcome is, and I think the better the relationship is with the client, because they can have a little more confidence when they are presenting our work to somebody else to get it blessed or to get budgeted for whatever they have to do. I hope this episode has gotten you to think maybe there’s a different way, maybe there’s a better way.

Drew McLellan:

Hopefully that will trigger that for you, it would be a great way to kick off 2021 is to really dig into making your entire team more strategic. I just want to remind you that we are now selling tickets for the Build a Better Agency Summit. That’s going to be on August and in Chicago, as you know, tried to do it in 2020, that didn’t work out so well. So we are excited to see all of you in Chicago in August of 2021. We are about half sold out right now for tickets for participants, so if you would like to join us, head over to the Agency Management Institute website and grab your tickets.

Drew McLellan:

Also, I want to give a huge shout out and thanks to our friends at White Label, they are the presenting sponsor of the Build a Better Agency Podcast, make it possible for us to come to you every week with great guests like Adam. So if you are interested in White Label design dev or PPC, head over to Whitelabeliq.com/ami, because as I tell you every week, they have a special deal for you. In the meantime, if you’re looking for me, I’m at DrewAgencymanagementinstitute.com. I would love to see you in the Facebook group that we’ve built just for podcast listeners.

Drew McLellan:

So head over to Facebook, just search for Build a Better Agency and it’ll pop right up. You have to answer the questions. I’m not going to let you in, if you don’t answer the question. So answer the three questions, they’re super simple, and I will be happy to admit you into the group. We’re having some great conversations there around gross margin percentages and all kinds of other things. So come join us and learn from each other and a little bit from Craig and I as well. So we’d love to have you there. All right, I’ll see you next week. Thanks for listening.

Drew McLellan:

That’s all for this episode of AMI’s Build a Better Agency Podcast. Be sure to visit Agencymanagementinstitute.com to learn more about our workshops, online courses, and other ways we serve small to mid-sized agencies. Don’t forget to subscribe today so you don’t miss an episode.