Every day I talk to agency owners who are worried about losing a key employee and every day another key agency employee walks out the door so it's easy to see why finding and keeping talent is the #1 pain point for most agencies today. Unfortunately, having a laid back culture, flex time and more vacation isn’t enough anymore. I wrote an article for Forbes on this topic and I identified several ways (based on our research with almost 1,000 agency employees) agencies are upping their game to keep their best team members. As always — I hope it’s helpful and I’d love to hear how you’re managing this challenge.
If there is an Achille’s heel for agency owners, it’s the ability to have candid conversations with members of their team. In our work with over 250 agencies a year, this is a pattern I’ve come to recognize all too often. A strong, charismatic owner is petrified to be honest with a member of their team. So they either avoid the topic altogether or they pussyfoot around the discussion, leaving the employee in the dark but feeling as though they can check it off the list. I have my own theories about why so many agency owners allow this weakness to paralyze their agency’s growth but whatever the root cause, it’s one of the biggest barriers to building the agency you deserve to own. See if any of these seem familiar: You don’t do regular reviews of your team You often find yourself talking (and repeating the same conversation) about an employee with your business partner or another employee that serves in a leadership role You have a love/hate relationship with a superstar performer who isn’t in alignment with your agency’s culture You tiptoe around conversations because you’re afraid of the repercussions You believe that having frank conversations that hold people accountable is not good for your agency’s culture You can be good at just about everything else, but if you can’t cultivate a culture of respectful candor — you’re going to hit a brick wall. Again and again. This is a leadership issue. This is a maturity issue, and this is a profitability and growth issue. If you want to attract and retain top performers — you have to be willing to rise above your discomfort and be candid with them. Beyond that, you [...]
One of the most frustrating things for agency owners is finding and keeping good employees. Before the pandemic, many agencies were having an amazing 12-18 months in terms of business development but those same agencies were actually choosing to tamp down their new business efforts because they were worried that they wouldn’t be able to staff for it. That’s a crazy position to be in. When a right fit client knocks on the door, you don’t want to say “thanks, but no thanks” because you’re afraid you can’t convince someone to work for you. I think it starts with having a very candid conversation with yourself. Given all the options out there, would you want to work for you? Many agencies (and corporate communications departments) are paying attention to what today’s employees value, especially given the pandemic, and modifying the work world. Here’s what you are competing against: Flexible work hours (everyone needs to be in from 9-4 but you can start earlier or stay later, based on your life’s needs) Permanent work from home options Unlimited PTO An AGI (or another metric) based bonus program Educational opportunities Student loan reimbursement 401K match A suite of insurances (health, dental, disability, life, etc.) and the agency provides at least partial payment Paid time off to serve the community or agency led community projects Bring your dog to work privileges A stocked snack room, with both healthy and not so healthy options Knowing that you can get some or all of that at the agency down the street (or from one of your clients) would you work for you? If you’re an old-school agency owner, I know you might be growling at that list. And if you [...]
I don’t believe there is an ideal size for an agency. But there’s probably an ideal size for your agency, based on your goals, ambitions, age, client mix, and the role you want to play in your own shop. Whether you want to have no employees and just use contractors or you want an agency of 100+ FTEs — your structure needs to support the machine. As you grow your agency — the processes, systems, and roles that got you to that size will not survive the next evolution. Many agencies make the mistake of outgrowing their work systems without anticipating that they’re going to need to make changes as the headcount increases. I tackled this subject for Forbes and I’m hoping the article is useful to you. Be careful that you don’t equate growing your agency with growing the number of bodies in your shop. That’s certainly one way to grow. But, growth doesn’t have to mean more people. It can be about better efficiency, better profitability, or new services. So no matter how you grow, recognize that things need to change to support the shift. Otherwise, things break down. It’s like being a teenager and going through a growth spurt but trying to squeeze into your elementary school clothes. Pretty soon, the seams can’t take it anymore and embarrassing things happen. The same is true for your agency. You don’t want your hard work to accidentally result in a faux pas that costs you money, a team member, or a client.
Every year, I get to hang out with 30+ digital team members from various AMI agencies hailing from California to Connecticut and everywhere in between. They come together once a year to pick each other’s brains, learn about new tools, and share best practices on how to manage a digital marketing team. One of the things that impresses me the most about them is that their focus is bigger than tools, tactics, and techniques. They’re also asking about agency new business strategies, how to help the agency’s social media get on track, and how to streamline processes so the agency is more profitable. These are employees who care about their agency and the agency’s performance. As I listen to them strategize together on how to bring even more value to the shop and your clients. I also identified some unspoken needs that would make a digital marketing team’s work easier and better. Require everyone in your agency to get some basic digital certifications so they have a better understanding and can work together better in identifying opportunities, writing proposals, and spec’ing projects. Use your agency as the test dummy — try video, voice, social experiments — but be out there and be bold. Be smart about tools versus time. You may be saving a buck or two by having them do something manually but if there’s an automated tool out there — use it so they have more think/learn time. Keep your own digital saw sharp — there’s always something new to learn and as their mentor and leader, you chart the course. I’m impressed and encouraged by the drive, curiosity, and hunger that these professionals display. It is definitely to your advantage to help [...]
A few of the agencies we’re working with have committed to building a leadership team and actually holding each other accountable (you all let each other off the hook way too often) for the internal goals they’d agreed needed to be tackled that quarter. So, how do you create that leadership team? It’s not about tenure or titles. It’s about who can actually advance your agency. Who is a holistic thinker, rather than protecting his/her department? Who offers off the wall solutions that force the entire group to step way out of their comfort zone? One of the best litmus tests? Who is an influential mentor inside your shop? Who loves to teach and celebrate others? Who lives your core values? Disregard age and title. Who is proving to you every day that they’re ready to lead? I got very prescriptive in an article I wrote for Spin Sucks so you can build a team around you that is equipped to take you and your agency further, faster. I’d love to hear if your leadership team strategy is aligned with mine or if you’ve taken a different approach. You can’t grow your agency alone. Grow your leadership team as you grow the agency. They'll serve each other (and you) well. This was originally published in the weekly AMI newsletter. To subscribe, click here.
In the last couple weeks, two agencies I’ve been working with onsite, every quarter wrapped up our first year together. As part of their homework, they had to prepare a PPT deck of every goal that they had crushed as a leadership team. I have to tell you — it was impressive. I take no credit for their efforts other than holding them as capable and accountable. They did all the hard work. I promise you, if I’d shown either agency owner the list of what they presented a year ago and promised them they’d get all of those items done (and done well) they would have laughed out loud. They’d never achieved so much in a mere 52 weeks before. So what was different? Their intentions. They entered into this year-long experiment by making a commitment to each other that they would not drop the ball or let each other off the hook. And they didn’t. Here’s what else made their efforts so successful. They didn’t over commit. One single focus per quarter and they weren’t allowed to chase any squirrels until their original commitment was complete. Regular accountability meetings. They met and reported on their progress. There was no tolerance for excuses, evasion, or the usual “well, we know you’ve been busy....” Measure what matters. We set up a list of metrics and they measured themselves against them every week. They were never surprised and they found that they anticipated shifts faster and better. They decided together which needs should get priority attention. There were no lone rangers, not even the owner. They worked in concert to assess what the agency needed most and what was needed to get it done. They stopped [...]
I think agency leaders and owners are incredibly generous people. I’m always astonished at how you take care of your people, often to your own detriment. You give to them in ways that mean you get a little less. It’s just who you are. So as I thought about this week’s message, I decided I might be able to help you scratch your natural tendency to show your gratitude in this crazy season we find ourselves in. Odds are you’re pretty good at saying thank you directly to your people. But I’m going to suggest you try a different tactic. Identify one of your super stars and take a few minutes jotting down what they do that is so valuable to you. If you can, capture a story of something that really illustrates their talent and value to you. Now, take that story and write a letter of gratitude to their spouse, kids, parents or whoever you think would be most proud to hear it. Tell them how awesome your employee is and acknowledge the sacrifices (missed dinners, Mom out of town, etc.) the family has made to allow your employee to thrive. Thank them for their willingness to let your team mate give their best to the agency and your clients. If you want to — include a gift card so they can all celebrate how amazing your employee is to you and for them. Don’t tell your employee you’re going to send the letter. Let it be a surprise. I think you’ll be stunned at the impact your letter has — both short and long term. It’s a gift they will cherish for a long time, as will their family members. And honestly [...]
Remember the “good old days” right after the recession when incredibly talented employees were easy to find, quick to hire and grateful to have a steady paycheck? The upside to that story is that in 2020 the economy is stronger, the job market is much more stable and everyone is making more money. The downside is — the days of just having a job being enough are over. Today, agencies are in a battle to recruit and retain talent and I don’t see that changing any time soon. Some agencies have adopted a blended staffing strategy (a mix of employees and a consistent contract labor pool) to combat this challenge. Other agencies are investing heavily in professional development and growth opportunities for their team (The #1 reason why an agency employee chooses to take a job/stay at an agency according to our 2016 research) to keep their top talent. But there’s a new benefit that is emerging as a deal clincher. Many of our employees (at every age) are strapped with student loans so a Student Loan Reimbursement perk is music to their ears and bank accounts. I wrote a story about this for Forbes, including some best practices for getting the most out of offering the benefit. I’m curious — if you’ve cracked the recruiting and retention code — what do you believe makes the difference? This was originally published in the AMI newsletter. To subscribe, click here.
My intention with a short email isn’t to talk about the bigger, cultural issues our world is facing around diversity but I think we can all agree it’s a topic that we need to keep front and center. That’s true in our agencies as well. Our clients are starting to demand it. It will have influence over our ability to hire and retain talent and it changes the caliber of our work. In fact, 42% of marketers feel the brands they work for don’t accurately reflect the racial diversity of our society. It’s a big deal and we need to pay attention to the challenge. Forbes asked me to write about how this is impacting agencies, our clients and our industry. I also offered up some tactics for thinking about and broadening the diversity in your own shop. I hope you’ll check it out and find it of value. We will be talking about best practices and new tactics for hiring the right team member in our upcoming workshop, Running Your Agency for Growth, Profit (and a little sanity!) coming up in March. It’s two days of how to operate your agency for maximum profit using the right structure, operating systems, and staffing to make it all possible. Hope to see you there! This was originally published in the weekly AMI newsletter. To subscribe, click here.