Episode 281

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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 Share on X “Let’s move forward nimbly and be simple in the choices we make in a way that can make the greatest impact.” @apierno Share on X “It’s a very delicate balance between under-explaining and over-explaining strategy.” @apierno Share on X “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 Share on X “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 Share on X “Create the playbook now for what future success looks like.” @apierno Share on X

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 lik