When we think back on those first few years of owning an agency, somehow the tough parts get muted. We remember the late-night pizza strategy sessions and the euphoria of signing that first big deal. But somehow we forget being one mistake or choice away from having to call it quits. That period of discomfort — though some of it was genuinely painful — helped us transform a mere idea into a real, living thing that served real, living people. Yes, we made mistakes in those early days, but we also took creative leaps into the dark, solved problems every day, and instilled happiness in others. In doing so, we changed the world just a little bit. That is the power of discomfort. We took those leaps of faith because we had everything to lose if we played it safe. The risk seemed like the least risky choice of all. I wrote about the need to get comfortable with discomfort for Smart Insights. What are you doing to stay uncomfortable? How do you help your team get comfortable with the discomfort? I’d love to hear your thoughts. This was originally published in the weekly AMI newsletter. To subscribe, click here.
I get asked some variation of this question every single day. Successful, profitable agency owners ask it. Agency owners that are struggling with having their work commoditized ask it. What they’re really asking me is “what are agencies selling that is profitable” but of course the answer is much more complicated than that. The answer is some agencies are making money selling everything from print ads, brochures, Google Adwords, strategic planning, package design, branding, and everything in between. Other agencies are fighting to hold their head above water, selling the same list of services. It’s not as simple as knowing that clients are hungry to buy crisis communications plans (which they are, btw) and beating the streets with that offer. If your agency is bloated with too many people or your ability to accurately estimate and track a project’s profitability in real time is non-existent, it doesn’t matter what you sell. But, let’s assume you have the right people in the right seats and you have systems in place to make sure you get paid what the project is worth. (Both criteria are topics for another conversation down the road). Now — what’s the short answer to that complicated question? What agencies seem to be able to sell for a premium price these days (in no particular order): Amazon ads and product placement on Amazon Employee recruiting campaigns Direct mail campaigns with a digital overlay Video (ideation, creation, publishing) A paid social media strategy Research and all of the tactics that are borne from those new insights What I think agencies should be selling more of and earning a premium price: The creation and management of a true content strategy where the brand thinks of [...]
I’m guessing when you read that headline, you snorted, rolled your eyes, or made a “duh” expression. I know you converse with your employees but do you actually have meaningful conversations? Here’s what I observe in most agencies. You greet employees as you see them during the day You have “as you run by them in the hallway” conversations which are 50% social and 50% functional in which you drop little bombs (updates, facts, commentary) on work in progress You have info passing email conversations But most of you are not setting aside time to actually dig in. Here’s what can and should happen on a regular basis: You’re teaching as you explain decisions and reactions to client requests, changes, strategies You’re learning where they’d like to invest their time in terms of learning something new and adding more value You’re giving them an opportunity to give you a heads up on potential client and team issues You’re coaching them through new challenges they’re facing You’re celebrating their growth, their wins, and their best attempts All of this can be accomplished in a 20 minute one-on-one meeting with your direct reports. Every employee should have one at least twice a month, if not more often. This is a meeting that the employee owns. There are huge benefits to you, the owner or leader of the agency as well. Fewer interruptions throughout the week (they’ll learn to save it for their one-on-one) Employees that are fired up to keep learning and understand that it’s part of their job An early warning when trouble is brewing Better employee retention (they want more of your time and attention) A much more accurate sense of what’s going on in [...]
I’m betting you have said on more than one occasion, “isn’t it funny, given what we do for a living, that we aren’t better communicators?” And you’re right it is funny in an ironic, funny way. But definitely not in a laugh all the way to the bank sort of way. In my work with agency owners and leadership teams, there is almost always a broken line of communication. It can come in many shapes and sizes. It can be a situation where Bob said something 10 years ago and Babette is still clinging to it like it’s gospel even though Bob has long since changed his thinking on the issue. Or Babette made a big announcement at a state of the agency meeting three months ago and is surprised that no one accurately remembers the details. Or Bob made a statement and no one asked any clarifying questions so all kinds of assumptions were made and held for way too long. You know, from your work with clients, that this is not an issue that in unique to agencies. It’s a challenge in every organization. But in small to mid-sized agencies, it can be a killer. It can cause people to shut down, quit, or make a mistake that costs you serious money. How do we solve it? We don’t shortcut the messaging — we may have been thinking about some aspect of the business for awhile, but our team has not had the benefit of walking that path with us. We need to give them the back story and all of the supporting information so they can fully understand the core idea. We can model asking clarifying questions — you know that it [...]
Almost every agency owner I know wishes they didn’t have to do sales and wants to hire it out to an employee. I hear this every day because what we do is hard to sell. 99 out of 100 salespeople that an agency hires will not sell more than their initial salary and are usually fired within the first year. To be a successful agency salesperson, you have to understand not the WHAT of our work but the WHY of our work. How do we really add value, increase sales etc. You also need to have super high level business conversations and most people can’t do that unless they have been a CMO, business owner, etc. If you don’t have the real life experience, it’s tough to know how to start or carry the conversation. People default to the “what keeps you up at night” BS because they can’t actually dig in and talk the talk. That level of business acumen is not easy to come by. The few successful salespeople inside agencies have at least 2-3 of these factors: The agency is a wonder bread factory (they have a very narrow focus of deliverables AND clientele so it’s easy to learn the nuances, because there aren’t that many) The agency has a narrow niche/niches so the sales person does not have to understand too many industries or verticals The agency is truly creating thought leadership content on a consistent basis so they can claim an authority position on their niche/niches. The sales person has already sold a high ticket ($25K and above) item/services to the same industry (has contacts and context) The sales person was a very successful account executive within your agency who [...]
Employees want to feel appreciated and like they belong -- show your employees that you care about them and that you're invested in their development. In this article I recently published to Entrepreneur.com, I discuss how to show your top performers that they are at the top of your list and why you should invest in the employees who make up the foundations of your team.
"Even if you’ve done everything possible to maximize your agency’s valuation, there will likely be surprises throughout the selling process." In this piece I recently contributed to Spinsucks.com I discuss how to maximize your company’s value to prep for the sale of your agency. No matter the size of your business, there’s a buyer out there.
We manage our people, we manage client expectations and we manage our finances. And then there’s email management, biz dev management and a host of other things that are under our watch. But all of that focus on making sure that everything is running like clockwork can also jack up our stress. That stress shows up in a lot of little ways: We are short tempered with our team, family and friends We feel like we can never let up or wind down We miss deadlines (internal or external) We fall behind, putting incredible pressure on our teams to cover our rear ends We are distracted when we’re with our family and friends We feel our jaw clenching, our head pounding, or our back knotting up Our “normal” work day is to run around and put out fires all day. I don’t know about you, but I don’t think I have ever had a work day that played out exactly how I thought it was going to when I woke up that morning. We have chosen to live in chaos. And sometimes, we even like it. But like it or not — it’s our reality. And that’s before you add in our personal life and the challenges that sometimes come from that side of the equation. The truth is — we can’t escape stress. They say, in moderate doses, it’s actually good for us. But left unchecked, it can diminish our effectiveness and we bring a less than ideal version of ourselves to work and home. And we all know — there are some serious physical/health consequences to boot. To survive that reality, we need coping mechanisms. Yes, I [...]
Let’s look at some different ways organizations have taken a firm stand.
At the beginning of most of my engagements, I start by sending the client team a questionnaire that helps me establish a baseline understanding of how the agency approaches business development—strengths, weaknesses, skills, and areas of resistance. In it, I ask them to describe their ideal client. Here’s a sampling of what I hear more often than not: “Open-minded, seek out expert advice, and take it, challenge us with problems they can’t solve, value our time and expertise.” “Really smart, and motivated to get things done.” “Collaborators who recognize the importance of strategic planning and thoughtful execution.” “They provide us with direct access to key decision-makers. They’re collaborative, value our opinions and input, and have a healthy balance of practical and aspirational thinking for their brand.” “They’re ‘brand collaborators’—marketing-led companies looking for a long-term, transparent partner to challenge the status quo and collaborate on integrated solutions.” “They trust us, respect us, and like spending time with us. Discussion is always thoughtful, relaxed, and challenging. It never feels like we’re not on the same team even when we disagree.” “They are appreciative of the work we do and pleasant to work with.” These are pretty idyllic descriptions. And not necessarily unrealistic. Every agency deserves to work with clients like these. The problem is, these descriptions are limited in their ability to help you find ideal clients. I began to consider why agencies default to describing ideal clients in this way. What I realized is agencies tend to frame the question as "who are we best served by?" when the question I’m really asking is “whom do you serve best?” Understanding the distinction between the two has big implications for the effectiveness of your new business outreach. Who is [...]