Episode 270

podcast photo thumbnail



As I thought about this solocast and what I wanted to say to you, I came up with a big list. Year-end planning, appreciate your clients, get your biz dev kicked off for 2021. And then I realized you, like me, are on stress overload already and the last thing I needed to do was to add to your To Do list. Instead, the most helpful thing I can do in this episode is to acknowledge what’s going on, how you’re feeling and offer some support. So that’s what we’re going to do together.

You’ve been going full steam ahead at a breakneck speed for almost nine months. You’ve scrambled to replace lost business, get government assistance, shift to working from home and taking care of your team.

You’ve had to make some tough choices, have difficult conversations and yet you’ve rallied each and every time. But no one can sustain the pace and stress you’ve been keeping forever. It’s not humanly possible, even for you. Most of your agencies have fared well through the pandemic and financially, you’re in good shape. But that doesn’t mean you don’t need to focus on giving yourself some respite. And that’s what this episode is all about!

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.

Stress Overload

What You Will Learn in This Episode:

  • The overarching sentiment of agency owners in 2020
  • What agency owners can do to move past the exhaustion and heavy emotions of 2020
  • Why it is important to step back and reflect on the hardships and victories of the last year
  • How agency owners are dealing with stress overload in this fast-paced environment
  • Why agency owners are particularly affected by being “stuck” in the pandemic
  • Why agency owners need to put on their own oxygen masks now so they can help their families, employees, and clients down the road
“Whether you have been breaking all records or struggling to keep your head above water, none of this has been easy for anyone.” @DrewMcLellan Share on X “I think it is really hard for us to admit that we cannot possibly keep up the pace and the level of stress we have been dealing with for the past nine months.” @DrewMcLellan Share on X “We as agency owners are not a group of people that likes to feel stuck or have control taken away from us. I think one of the things that dealing with stress overload does is render us completely out of control.” @DrewMcLellan Share on X “Being powerless is not something we are used to—or comfortable with. I believe that we have to take some of that control back.” @DrewMcLellan Share on X “We as agency owners have to find new ways of dealing with stress overload. We need to put on our oxygen masks first so we can fight another day.” @DrewMcLellan Share on X

About the Author: Drew McLellan

For 30+ years, Drew McLellan has been in the advertising industry. He started his career at Y&R, worked in boutique-sized agencies, and then started his own (which he still owns and runs) agency in 1995. Additionally, Drew owns and leads the Agency Management Institute, which advises hundreds of small to mid-sized agencies on how to grow their agency and its profitability through agency owner peer groups, consulting, coaching, workshops, and more.

  • Leading agency owner peer groups
  • Offering workshops for agency 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 over 250+ agencies every year, Drew 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 several books, including Sell With Authority (2020) and been featured in The New York Times, Forbes, Entrepreneur Magazine, and Fortune Small Business. The Wall Street Journal called his blog “One of 10 blogs every entrepreneur should read.”

Ways to contact Drew McLellan:

Tools & Resources:

Speaker 1:

Welcome to the Agency Management Institute Community, where you’ll learn how to grow and scale your business, attract and retain the best talent, make more money, and keep more of what you make. The Build a Better Agency Podcast, presented by White Label IQ, is packed with insights on how small to mid-size agencies survive and thrive in today’s market. Bringing his 25 plus years of experience as both an agency owner and agency consultant, please welcome your host, Drew McLellan.

Drew McLellan:

Hey everybody, Drew McLellan here with Agency Management Institute. Welcome back to another episode of Build a Better Agency. I am as always very grateful that you’re here and I’m really eager to talk to you today. So I am looking forward to our time together. This is one of my solo casts, so no guests this time, just you and me talking about something that has been on my mind and I want to make sure is on your mind as well.

Before we get into that, just a quick reminder that we have all kinds of resources for you on the website. There are webinars, there are all of the archived episodes of the podcast, there’s all kinds of articles and other resources. If you have not been to the website recently, you might check that out and see what resources are available to you. We’re always trying to put out content that is useful for you.

One of the things that I’ve been doing for about a year now, maybe even a little longer than that is I’ve been recording a weekly video, not usually more than three or four minutes, sometimes five, but anyway, a weekly video with a tip for you. And I always launch those on LinkedIn first, and then we add them on YouTube and put them on all the other social channels. So you can access those by either A, making sure we’re connected on LinkedIn or B, you can subscribe to our YouTube channel. So anyway, just wanted to remind you there’s a lot of resources there for you, and I hope that you take full advantage of them.

If you are not getting our weekly newsletter, that’s another place where we are putting out content that I think is of value to you, things for you to think about. So if you are not on our newsletter list, please send me an email [email protected] and we would be happy to add you to the list.

All right. If you’re listening to this in real time, it is early December, and I think it’s safe to say that nobody is going to be sad to see 2020 go. And it’s been a long year. It has been an arduous year, and I’ve been thinking a lot about what I was going to say to you. I knew that this was sort of my last solo cast for 2020, and I kept thinking, “Boy, what do you guys need to learn? What do you need to be thinking about? Is there stuff around 2021 that I should be talking to you about, our bizdev stuff? Should I remind you to appreciate your clients or your employees?”

I have to admit, I said yes to all of those things and I just couldn’t have that conversation with you right now. And the reason why is because I’m very aware of how full you are, that you are all on complete overload right now. And that maybe this is not the time. Maybe now is not the time for me to add more to your to-do list. Maybe this is the time, and now is the time for me to just acknowledge what’s going on with you and how you’re feeling, and if I can to offer some support or some suggestions or some help.

I get to talk to agency owners every single day of the week. And I am feeling what you all are feeling. So when COVID first hit with a few noted exceptions, you rallied, agency owners were on it, your adrenaline kicked into overdrive and you worked relentlessly to make up for what you lost, whether it was a client that paused or a client that went away and you knew that you needed to make it up with new sales. You had to get your team settled into a work from home environment. And I’m telling you, you guys conducted virtual happy hours like a champ. You were in March and April and May, no matter how frightened you were, no matter how freaked out you were, you just showed up and you showed up powerfully and focused and confidently. You scrambled to make sure that your agency got whatever government assistance was available for you and for your team. And honestly, even for the people that you had to lay off or furlough, you went through incredible lengths to figure out what you could do to help them have a soft landing. You were absolutely amazing.

And all along the way, you’ve been facing really gut wrenching choices about your team, about whether or not you should go back to the office. And if so, how, and when, and what were you going to say to the people who didn’t want to go back? You also were focused on helping clients, honestly, whether they have money to pay you or not, in some cases. Every one of you was facing this myriad of difficult choices. And each of you made different choices, but none of them were easy.

And then this summer, your efforts began to really bear fruit and you were suddenly onboarding clients, but the economy and COVID and Black Lives Matters and the election here in the States and all of the other crazy things like weird storms in unlikely places, all of that was bombarding you, as you were onboarding these new clients, trying to keep the staff fired up and energized. And so what that meant was even with your wins, there were some additional slow-downs and losses that you also had to deal with. And yet you kept at it. You kept that same pace, you pushed on.

But now you are also starting to deal with employees who needed some extra attention. There were mental health issues. Oh, and you and some of your employees had school age kids, and so you were juggling all of that. Just saying it out loud, just talking about it is exhausting. You’ve had nine months of that wash, rinse, repeat.

And wait, while you were scrambling for the new clients, trying to hang on to and help your old clients and deal with all of your employees and your own emotional issues, you were also in full on innovation and creation mode. I’m astonished and so proud, even though I had nothing to do with it, of all of the things that you guys in the midst of everything that was going on, with everything that had been heaped on your plate, you still found a way to launch new research projects. You created all new service offerings. You helped clients pivot events, from live events to virtual events. You negotiated new partnerships, some of you worked on writing a book or launched a podcast. You all have been a high energy, high performing machine. It’s really been remarkable to watch. It’s been a privilege to watch.

But as fall came and as we wound our way into that season and with the US presidential election looming and then dragging on for almost a week before it was declared, it seems like all of a sudden somebody has popped your balloon. I feel it in every conversation, I can hear your exhaustion. I can hear your disappointment, that we’re not back to normal yet. And I can hear your trepidation, that we’re going to come out of the holidays and go into 2021, and it’s going to look and feel a whole lot like 2020. Even if you and your agency are having a record-breaking year, which many of you are, or you’re just doing okay, or you’re getting back on your feet for all of you, I feel the weight of this.

And I feel like the weight of it has finally hit you between the eyes and you can no longer keep up the pace that you have kept up for the last nine months. You can no longer in safe places paced on the smile that you have been wearing every day in every meeting on every freaking Zoom call, you are out of gas. And honestly, I recognize this in all of you, because I got to be honest with you, I have never been more exhausted in my entire life. Like you, I have been working seven days a week, in the beginning until probably mid summer, it was 16 hours a day, and all just to be as helpful as I could, while I was also still managing my own agency and the business side of AMI. So I get it. I feel it with you. I am right there with you. I am out of gas.

And the reality is none of this has been easy for any of us, whether you’re the agency that is breaking all records and you have had to hire people and you’ve onboarded new clients, or you’re the agency that is still picking yourself up from having 75% of your AGI pulled out from under you in March, no matter where you are in the spectrum, this has not been easy for anybody.

And as I thought about this solo cast, and I thought about what I wanted to say to you, what I really want to say to you is I want you to know that I see it. And I see you. And I know that you’re tired. And I know that you’re disappointed, that you had such high hopes for 2020. I know that because I did too. And I know that you’re grieving what didn’t happen and what was lost. And I also know you’re frustrated and mad because this isn’t fair. And you’ve worked for a long time to get where you were and for many of you, you’ve had to take two steps back. And now you are fighting your way back to where you were a year ago. And many of you have gotten there, many of you have exceeded it, but for none of you, has this been a walk in the park, not one of you has said, “You know what, I could do this all the time.” All of you are exhausted and I totally get it.

And you know what? It’s hard to push all of that aside. So those emotions are so overwhelming. It’s really difficult to push that aside and also recognize and acknowledge that you have another whole set of feelings that many of you rightfully so, are incredibly proud of what you’ve done and what your team has done, how you have helped clients pivot, how you’ve helped clients save their business, how you have innovated and created new opportunities, so you could keep more of your team or so you could help a client who was in crisis.

Another feeling that I think a lot of us are feeling is relief, relief that we’re okay, or maybe we’re even doing really well. And so there’s all of these hard, heavy emotions, the exhaustion, the disappointment, the frustration, and then you’ve got this pride and this relief and ultimately this gratitude that I think for a lot of us, we’re very grateful because we know we’re in a better position than most people. But I think that, and I’m all about gratitude, you know that. I start every day thinking about what I’m grateful for. I’ve got it on my wall in my kitchen to remind myself to be grateful every day. But I think right now that that gratitude is a blessing, but it’s also a curse. Because the curse side of it is somehow because we’re not homeless or eating cat food to survive, for some reason, we think we can’t acknowledge how hard this is, that we have to keep it tucked away or hidden, or we can only whisper it to the people that we’re closest to.

And I think it’s really hard for us to admit that we cannot possibly keep up the pace that we have kept up for the last nine months or carry the stress of how it has all been. We just can’t fathom doing that going into 2021. And I know that you like I, I’m anxious for this all to be over, for things to go back to some semblance of normal, to feel safe. And I know that many people that I talk to are feeling really paralyzed or stuck, like physically stuck and paralyzed. Like you can’t leave your house, you can’t go anywhere other than the grocery store, but also just kind of emotionally stuck.

And there’s the rub right there. We as agency owners are not a group of people who likes to feel stuck or have control taken away from us. And I think one of the things that COVID has done in ways that we couldn’t have possibly imagined is we have been rendered completely out of control. That we are powerless to impact this in terms of how it has literally affected every aspect of life on the globe. I don’t know about you, but even if I had watched a scifi movie that predicted something like a COVID, I would have dismissed it as being so ridiculous far-fetched that it was almost outside of the realm of even being able to enjoy the movie or the book, because it was so out of the realm of what’s possible. And now we know that that’s just not the case.

But being powerless is not something that we’re used to or speaking for myself anyway, that we’re comfortable with. I believe we have to take some of that control back. Can we control a lot of what’s happening in the world? Absolutely not. Can we contribute to it getting better by being smart about how we behave? Absolutely, but we can’t wait until there are absolutely no new COVID cases for a week before we put the spotlight on ourselves and begin to take care of ourselves.

I hear such exhaustion when I talk to you. And again, even if things are going well, you’re just going so fast. Part of this is the pace, you hit a pace in March or whenever in your country, COVID really impacted your business, but you hit a pace. You came out of the gate so fast and so hard that you can’t possibly sustain that forever. And you’re at the point now, where for many of you, you are figuratively sort of gasping for breath because you’ve been going at it for so long, so hard and you just need some oxygen.

And so when you think about the adage, you have to put your own oxygen mask on first. I think this is very true for us right now. We’ve got to figure out ways to put on our own oxygen mask. We’ve got to refresh, fill our lungs with air. We’ve got to take in all that we need from that oxygen so that we can fight another day. And if you don’t put on your own oxygen mask now, you’re not going to be able to help your family, your employees, your clients, down the road. We cannot possibly just keep keeping on without giving ourselves some respite. You need to figure out how to give yourself the break that you desperately need.

Now I know that for many of us, the way we would naturally sort of fill our buckets are things that we can’t do right now, right? But I do believe, and I’ve been having a lot of conversations with agency owners about this for the last couple of weeks. I do believe that we can do some things that make us feel better. I don’t think this is a nothing or all sort of thing. I don’t think it’s an all or nothing. So I think it starts with really understanding how empty your bucket is and how you used to keep that bucket toped off. So it’s really about what energizes you. And as I was thinking about this, I was thinking about, I think we get energy in a couple of different ways.

So if you will, a little bit of homework, I want you to think back to before all of this COVID crap started. And what filled you up? What gave you one of those days where when you finally fell into bed, you could not wipe the smile off your face because you had just had so much fun? And I want you to make a list of what happened on those days, where you literally throwing yourself into bed and you lay there in the dark with a goofy grin on your face because the day had been that fantastic.

And then I want you to think about, okay, what about the days when you finally got into bed, you had a different kind of smile on your face, and this was the smile because you knew that that day you had done something really meaningful for someone, you had truly been a gift to someone that day. And again, make a list, what are the things that teed up that sort of a reaction to the end of your day, make a list.

And then I want you to think about what gave you one of those days, that when you finally got into bed, there was such a sense of peace in your heart and in your head, you were just so grateful because you could just feel this sense of peace and calm. What caused that kind of a reaction to a day? What gave you that sort of gift? And again, I want you to make a list. So once you’ve got those three lists, the reality is whether you are an introvert or an extrovert, I’m betting that if you look at those three lists, one of the elements of what filled you up and gave you that sense of joy and fun or meaningfulness or peace, one of the elements that was true on all of those lists are whatever you had done that day to give you that depth of feeling was all consuming. For that moment, that hour, that day, or that week, you were enveloped in what you were doing.

And I think that’s one of the things that we’re missing right now. There’s no place in our world right now, just to be. Whether you’re back at the office or you’re still working from home, we’re just so surrounded by 24/7 news and protestors and angry people and clients and email and texts and Zoom and stuff that there’s no place for you just to be, to focus on that moment and to not worry, to truly unplug and to give all of yourself to some experience, no matter what it may be. I think we need that. I think we need to be enveloped in something. And I get from many of us, one of the challenges is what fills us up with that fun and joy or that sense of doing something meaningful or that piece isn’t possible in exactly the same way right now, totally get it.

For me, what gave me those kinds of days were traveling internationally with my daughter, as we went on our quest to try and visit all the continents. Or hanging out with a big group of agency owners. Or leading a troop of friends and clients and family through Disney World. All of those things feel very out of reach for me right now. But you know what, I also think, and I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, and this has come up in my conversations with agency owners, I think in some ways that’s a story that we’re telling ourselves. I’m not saying that we’re all comfortable spending three weeks in Italy right now, or attending a 300 person wedding. But I do think we have more control and we’re not as stuck perhaps as we think we are, everything is not out of reach.

So as I said earlier, I think because we are so empty and we know that it’s going to take a lot to fill that bucket, that we’ve been approaching this many of us anyway, as an all or nothing proposition. If I can’t do the things the way I used to do them to fill my bucket, then I might as well just stay here at home and the big thrill for me of the week is going to the grocery store on Tuesdays. But you know what? We have to give ourselves some respite.

So I want you to go back and look at your lists and ask yourself, “Here are moments, here are days here are experiences that filled me with joy. That filled with a sense of fun. That gave me a sense of being very meaningful to someone else.” Or “This just filled me with peace.” And then ask yourself, looking at those lists. “What can I give myself that relieves some of the pressure?” So I don’t care what it is, but I’m telling you right now, if you don’t put it on the calendar, it’s not going to happen because there are so many demands for your time. And by the way, no one’s going to die if you check out for a day or two or a week, no one’s going to die. Your agency and your team are capable of keeping the train on the rails. They absolutely are.

And by the way, if you do this and you do it well, and you do it in some way with some public declaration of what you’re doing and why you’re doing it, you’re also going to encourage your employees to do this because they need it too. So get it on the calendar, whatever it is. And I don’t care if it’s you leaving your phone on your nightstand and you’re going to another part of the house, and you’re going to sit in front of a fire and read an entire book. I don’t care if this means for you getting on a plane and visiting family or friends who you know have been Uber careful and are not going to put you or them at risk. I don’t care if it’s you getting to a beach by bicycle or car or train or plane and walking for hours on that beach or skiing down a mountain, maybe it’s getting dressed up and creating an occasion on a regular Wednesday, getting all dressed up and go into your favorite restaurant for a really slow leisurely meal and a deep conversation with somebody you love.

Maybe for you, it’s volunteering in some way so that you’re making somebody else’s day better. Or for some of you you’ve wanted to do something, learn how to paint or write a book or whatever it is. So why not take a master class and get started on that novel that’s been banging around in your head for years? But I want you to find something that you can pour yourself into and get lost. That’s what we’re missing. That is what we’re missing.

We are always on, we’re on a Zoom call. We’re on call with the agency. We’re on alert about a client, pulling the plug. You need to be not on for a while. You need to refill your own bucket and maybe taking the masterclass and starting your book or having a fancy dinner or any of the other things I suggested or any of the things that you can modify so that you stay safe from the items on your list. Maybe it’s not going to fill your bucket to the rim. I’m not suggesting that, these are the things that are the same as going on an amazing vacation, or doing a wine tour along the California coast. I’m not suggesting that. But what I am saying is I think there is a difference in the middle. The bucket doesn’t have to be bone dry or filled to the rim. I think there is something in the middle that we can start to do to at least begin to put something back into the bucket so that we are ready to take on 2021 with a storm.

And by the way, this is not just about COVID, certainly, this is an extreme experience that we are all sharing because of COVID. But honestly, this is about the pace that we’ve always lived our lives. We have always push, push, push, push, push to exhaustion, to the empty bucket. The difference was we had more ways to refill our bucket prior to COVID and you know what? We’ll have more ways to refill our bucket again, you and I both know that, but right now we still have to do something to make sure that the bucket is not bone dry.

COVID is the perfect excuse to figure out how to add some regular respite to your life. Maybe it doesn’t have to always be big, grand efforts or experiences to refill the bucket. Maybe you could find ways that even at home or even in your local town, that you could replenish yourself. And maybe that’s a gift that we get from COVID. If we can learn how to calm ourselves and how to truly pour ourselves into something, so we shut out the rest of the world for just a little bit, maybe that’s the gift of COVID. A lot of it is sucked and there is no gift of COVID that is going to make what we’ve all gone through balance out, that’s not what I’m suggesting. But maybe this is one of the silver linings of COVID.

So I have spent this entire podcast asking you to please take care of yourself. I’m worried about you. Yes, we are blessed. And yes, we should be grateful. We are the lucky ones, but that does not mean that we aren’t tired. And that does not mean that we don’t need to take care of ourselves in a more meaningful way than I think a lot of us have been doing. And I want you to really be ready for 2021. There’s a whole new year waiting for us to claim it and to conquer it. And I want you to go into it refreshed and centered and strong.

So please, between now and then find some time on your calendar, whether it’s a big, audacious thing that you’re going to do, like heading to a beach, if you’re in the middle of the country, where there are no beaches, or if it’s a tiny little thing, like just sitting in front of the fire with your favorite cocktail and reading a book and getting completely immersed in that story, whatever it is, I want you to find some peace. I want you to find respite. I want you to find some joy because honestly we haven’t given ourselves a lot of opportunity to do that lately. And I think our lives should be joy-filled.

And under normal circumstances, there’s a lot of things for us to be joyous about. And 2020 has robbed us of a lot of those things. So we’ve got to do it for ourselves. We have to put that in place and we have to, I think, put on that oxygen mask for ourselves so that everyone else sees what we’re doing and does it for themselves as well. I think that maybe is the way to be a great leader in 2020, and to get you and your entire team and probably your entire family geared up and ready for a better year ahead.

All right. So again, please take care of yourself, please put on the oxygen mask, give yourself the respite that you need and that you deserve. Doesn’t mean we’re not grateful, it just means we’re smart enough to know that life is a marathon and we’ve got a lot left to do, and so we have to be rested and ready. Okay? All right.

Thanks for listening. I appreciate your time. I’m grateful for you every single day, but 2020 has reminded me many times how fortunate I am to have you out there and being a part of the Agency Management Institute Community. So please take good care of yourself. I really do care very much that you get through this strong and solid and happy. I really do. So please take some rest.

All right. Before I let you go, I just do want to thank our friends at White Label IQ for being the presenting sponsor of the podcast. They are amazing folks, really great customer service, great partners in terms of being a great thinking partners. If you’re looking for some White Label Design or Dev or PPC, make sure you check them out at whitelabeliq.com/ami. I’ll be back next week with another guest, but in the meantime, get some respite on your calendar. All right? I’ll see you then. Thanks for listening.

That’s a wrap for this week’s episode of build a better agency. Visit agencymanagementinstitute.com to check out our workshops, coaching packages, and all the o