The cornerstone of AMI is our agency owner peer networks. As an agency owner, there aren’t a lot of people you can be 100% candid with, when it comes to how things are going, what you’re working on and the struggles along the way. That’s why network membership is so valuable. The owners get the best of both worlds by joining. You get that outside perspective you really need but from someone who walks in your shoes every day.

Many of our network members have been a part of AMI for almost 20 years. They find it so valuable, they asked us to create a lookalike network for their right hand men/women. So we have done just that. We call this our key executive network.

My podcast guest is Craig Barnes who is a part of the AMI team and facilitates the key executive networks. Craig‘s uniquely qualified for this role because of his 30+ years of agency ownership. He’s an amazing mentor and teacher so he’s perfect for the job.

In this episode, Craig and I dissect what makes a great #1 and how an agency owner can set up their key teammate for success.

  • The key executives (#1s) group Craig facilitates for AMI
  • What makes key executives so valuable
  • Integrators: the employees that don’t want to be owners and just want to pull the levers
  • How we as agency owners make life hard for integrators by not letting go of control
  • Having an empowerment agreement with your #1s for setting expectations for who gets to control what
  • Setting regular meetings with your key executive that you do not break
  • How agency owners can know whether or not they’re ready for a #1 to take things over
  • Traits that make for a great key executive
  • How to compensate your #1s
  • The impact key executives are having on agencies by committing to goals

As a part of AMI’s team, Craig Barnes consults with owners of small to midsize advertising agencies to improve their people, processes and profitably. It’s the sum of a lot of experiences across 30+ years of owning and operating an advertising agency.

He learned early on that operating an agency was both rewarding and challenging, and benefitted from seeking the counsel of others to help guide a path to growing his three-location agency.

As a 15+ year member of an AMI owner network group, Craig has fully lived AMI’s mission “to help agency owners increase their AGI, attract better clients and employees, mitigate the risks of being self-employed in a such volatile business and best of all — let the agency owner actually enjoy the perks of owning the joint.”

While still involved with his agency, Craig now spends the majority of his time working with owners who seek AMI’s assistance to achieve their goals.  

He has a passion for a hands-on, roll-up-your-sleeves approach to analyzing issues and developing actionable solutions.

An amateur chef, Craig enjoys cooking for family and friends and has a not so secret desire to spend part of the year in Italy.  He’ll also gladly share recipes with you.

To listen – you can visit the Build A Better Agency site ( and grab either the iTunes or Stitcher files or just listen to it from the web.

If you’d rather just read the conversation, the transcript is below:

Table of Contents (Jump Straight to It!)

  1. What Surprised Craig the Most about Key Executives
  2. Some of the Issues Key Executives Face
  3. Setting Up Your Key Executive to Be Successful
  4. What Every Key Executive Wants from their Business Owner
  5. Some of the Traits Owners Should Look for in a Key Executive
  6. What Makes a Great Key Executive?
  7. Why a Key Executive Should Behave Like an Owner
  8. How Owners Can Better Appreciate their Number 1’s
  9. How a Key Executive Impacts Agency Performance

Drew: Hey everybody. Drew McLellan here. Another episode of Build a Better Agency.

For many of you, one of your goals is that you don’t have to do it all anymore, that you have built a team that you can count on who is skilled enough that they can step up and do a lot of the things that historically, you’ve had to do. Today’s guest is going to help me dive into that a little bit, so let me tell you about him.

Craig Barnes, first of all I’ve got to tell you, Craig Barnes is a great friend of mine. We’ve known each other for, gosh, probably 10, 15 years. Craig started in the TV side of the business. About 30 years or so ago, he decided to start an agency. Over the course of the last 30 years, he had owned and run his own agency, which he still does today. At one point, the agency was over 50 employees, three offices in three different states. Craig brings decades of agency owner experience to the world.

Craig is also on the AMI team, one of the things that Craig does, and the reason why he’s on the podcast today, is he facilitates what we call the key executive groups. Imagine an agency has a right-hand person, COO, sometimes a director of accounts service, but really it’s the agency owner’s right-hand man if you will. Those folks come together in a network, so it’s a peer network. Everyone in the group is a right-hand man or woman, and some of them have minority ownership, but most of them do not. They come together twice a year and hang out for two and a half days, in the fall and in the spring, share best practices, learn from each other, share resources, and Craig is the guy that brings them together and facilitates that. He, in essence, is coaching and facilitating and eavesdropping on these conversations with these folks.

We thought it would be interesting to talk about their perspective on the agency, and how they’re trying to help agency owners and what gets in the way of that. Without any further ado, Craig, welcome to the podcast.

Craig: Thanks Drew. Glad to be here.


What Surprised Craig the Most about Key Executives

Drew: You and I have both been agency owners for a long time, and we both have had key employees who make our lives a heck of alot easier. As you know, about a year and a half ago, a lot of the agency owners wanted to provide some professional development and some peer to peer mentoring for their key execs, which is why we started these groups.

What’s surprised you so far about these folks? You’re hanging out with 40 or 50 key execs, what is surprising you about these people?

Craig: I just think their total commitment to helping their owners move the agency’s mission forward, very skilled, very bright, very involved in the business, and willing to do what it takes to help move the needle for the agency in the marketplace. Some come to position having worked at other agencies before, which I think helps bring a little bit of unique perspective for that owner, and some have grown up in the agency and gained the confidence of the owner to the point that they are in that role, so they really know the organization inside and out.

I think that overall, I’d characterize these people as being very interested in making sure that the owner and the team behind the owner are all on the same page. Some are interested in ownership, and some frankly are not. There’s a mix within the people that we have at our groups, but all of them though, I think, have a singular focus on how can I help my owner achieve what we’re trying to achieve here?

Drew: Yeah. You know what, I think one of the things that’s interesting is agency owners can be, I don’t want to say paranoid, but they can be concerned about opening the kimono too far and either letting the employees see the bad news or how great it is, how much they make, whatever that is, and always assuming that their employees are cut out of the same cloth.

One of the things that I’ve noticed about the key execs is, in traction language, most agency owners are visionaries and most key execs or right-hand people or number ones, are integrators. Many of them have no desire to really be in the front role and to run the agency and be the face of the agency. They like being in the background, making sure that the machine is actually working.

Craig: That’s absolutely right. I think in the pure traction model, and people that listen to the podcast, that follow that model, know that very well. You need an integrator. You need somebody to, as you say, pull the levers. I do think that the people in our groups fit that description almost to a tee, that that’s what they are interested in doing, with the exception, as I say, there’s a couple of people that are certainly interested in ownership and there’s nothing wrong with that.

But I think also, to elaborate on your point a little bit, as owners, most of us probably did not set out to own an agency.

Drew: Right. We’re accidental business owners.

Craig: Absolutely.

Drew: Most agency owners are, yeah.

Craig: Absolutely. We’ve had to learn along the way, how to run an organization, and some of us have done better jobs in that than others, and we learn by trial and error, and we get counseling and advice and coaching and all those kinds of things, to grow into our positions.

Through that experience, I think oftentimes we find ourselves in a position, and I think relate this to your personal life too, whether it’s your wife or your husband or whoever, we all have blind spots, and we need somebody who can help us make sure that we’re seeing the big picture when sometimes we might be so focused on a particular subject or area of interest, that we don’t see the train coming down the tracks the other way. We need somebody to help us stay on our game.

I certainly think that, as a key executive and number two, and integrator, that’s what these folks do.

Drew: Yeah. It’s interesting, I just did a podcast interview, it hasn’t aired yet, but I just did a podcast interview with Mark Winters, the guy who wrote Rocket Fuel, which is the companion book to Traction. He was saying that integrators are a rare beast. That for every four visionaries, you’re going to find one integrator, and so for agency owners that have found a great right-hand person, it is in their great interest to make sure that that person stays engaged and connected to the agency because they’re a unicorn. They’re hard to find.

Craig: Right, I think that what I hear most from our key executives is that they want to have a stream of communications that works both ways with their owner, both for contributing as well as for those times when they need to push back and ask them to consider perhaps another strategy or another direction, and they want that both ways. They also want to know as much about the operation as possible, and for them to be forthright, and as you said, share the good news and the bad news, because that’s the only way they can truly be effective.


Some of the Issues Key Executives Face

Drew: Yeah. In your conversations in the network meetings with the integrators, what are some of the issues that they are wrestling with? What are some of the specific things that they feel like they’re banging their head against a wall about?

Craig: I think consistently, and again I think this goes back to us as owners, not set out to do this originally, is the control. We have a hard time letting go, and I think that’s a lot of what the key execs run up against, is that the owner will want them to take control and to run with it, but then will stand over their shoulder sometimes and micromanage things. We all know, we’ve seen that across the number of people that we’ve encountered in our agency lives, of people that tend to want to hold the reins.

I get it. As an owner, I get it. I was talking to someone about a month ago about this, who’s with an agency, and they were expressing their frustration. I said, “Look,” I said, “You have to at least have the perspective knowing that your owner started this agency, they’ve put their blood, sweat and tears into it, and it’s a little difficult sometimes to let go of the reins.”

As much as it’s important for growth of the agency, it’s difficult sometimes, and I think if you have that perspective, knowing what the owner feels, this control if you will, that they feel, that it can help you understand where they’re coming from and put you in a better position to lead from the rear sometimes, but have that perspective.

Because it is tough. You’ve been there, I’ve been there, and probably every agency owner that’s listening to us has been there too. It’s like ah. You get that feeling like uh, I know I want them to do this, but boy, I just feel so nervous sometimes. I think you have to develop a relationship and you have to develop that sense of trust between two people in order to move that forward.

But I think that’s the biggest thing that people butt their heads against, is just the owner, so that getting in the weeds, getting in the way, and not letting them do what they’ve asked them to do.

Drew: Right. I think part of it is, one of the conversations I have with owners, and I know you do too when you’re coaching them, is someone else’s right way may not be your right way, but it doesn’t mean that it’s not going to get you to the end game, and that if you want to scale your business, and most owners, it’s fascinating to me.

On the one hand, every owner talks about the fact that they want to not be as involved in the day-to-day, they are tired of working the 60 hour work weeks, they’re tired of being the only person who can do strategy, fill in the blank, fill in the blank, fill in the blank, and yet they’re the bottleneck that stays in the way of that being able to change.

Craig: Yeah.

Drew: It is akin to inviting a nanny in to raise your kids during the day while you are at work. You know what? It’s awfully hard to watch someone else discipline your kid or get a hug from your kid or whatever, or go to the school play with you, whatever that is, but the reality is, if you don’t do that, then you have to stay anchored home, and you can’t go out and do what you need to do.

Craig: Right.


Setting Up Your Key Executive to Be Successful

Drew: You’ve got to set the nanny up to be successful, and I think that comes down to, and I’m curious your thoughts, but I think that comes down to having really clear expectations about who gets to decide what, when, and having almost like a safe word, where you can say, “Orangutan,” and that says, “You know what? You’re violating our agreement.”

Whatever that is, whatever the communication mechanism is, that says, “Look. You told me that I could make this decision, and that as long as these criteria were checked, that you were going to let me run with this, and now, now you’re not. Now you’re pulling the rug out from under me.”

Craig: Right. I will tell you that a real simple way to address that, and full attribution to one of the members of our key exec group has this in place with her owner, and it’s an empowerment agreement. It’s a one page document. We all set goals. We sit down with our staffs or with our number one, and we create a set of goals for the year, but really the empowerment agreement can be a simple one page document that basically has four points to it. It’s about decision making boundaries.

Point one is please go forward and run with these, and you decide which of these things do you want your number two to run with. Two, please inform me after you take certain actions and do certain things. Three, please consult with me on X, Y, Z, and the four, please request my permission about, again, whatever that list is.

It’s very simple right? I think if you have that in place, then it’s something for reference, to your point earlier, that you can go back to and say, “See. This is … This is what you asked me to do, this what you agreed to,” and I think it creates a framework to help accelerate the process to a point that you begin to see those results you’re looking for, and as you say, not work the 60 hour work week, or allows you as an owner to focus your time to work on that business as opposed to being in the business too much, and getting in the way of progress.

Drew: Yeah. That is a great model and tool.

Craig: It really is.

Drew: You know, I think it’s created in a moment of calm, and in a moment where you’re not feeling pressured to make a decision, so everyone is bringing their most rational self to the discussion as opposed to they’re emotionally stirred up.

I think at the end of the day, one of the ways I explain this to employees, which is I think right in alignment with what you do, is every owner has made a bad decision that put them in a position, whether it was I didn’t chase after new business aggressively enough, whatever it is, they’ve made a bad decision that put them in the position where they have to let someone go because they just don’t have enough money in the coffers to keep somebody on payroll.

I think at the end of the day, the fear for the owner, of letting somebody else raise the baby, is the impact that it has on the family. The motivation is great, it’s just misguided.

Craig: Absolutely. I think too that owners, as you say, they have had those experiences so it shapes some things that they do down the road, but in talking with our key execs in these groups, they all, I think, get that to some degree. They’ve seen those things happen, and they really take their role seriously from how they can help motivate the team.

One of the analogies I like to use is that I’m a big hockey fan, our son grew up playing hockey, he played hockey all through college, and one of the things that you’ll see on a hockey team is a very specific role for the position of captain. It’s not a ceremonial position by any means.

What a captain on a hockey team does is that they are the conduit between the owner and the players, I mean the coach and the players. The coach may have some specific things that they want to get done, and the captain can help translate that to the players in a way that makes sense, and for the players to relate to what the other player is saying.

Oftentimes too, employees may not feel that they can always approach the owner, but they can always approach the number two or the captain of the team, to bring concerns to them or ideas that they want to move forward.

I think that your point about having made these bad decisions, and fear and stuff, I think that in this role, these key execs can help these owners move past that in a way where they’re setting up this communication stream with the team, that gets everybody on the same page, and may take away some of that fear because they can see the results of what’s happening as the team progresses and things move through the pipe.

Drew: Yeah. As always, in every relationship. It all boils down to communication.

Craig: Right.


What Every Key Executive Wants from their Business Owner

Drew: One of the things, when I look at agencies who have a successful owner and key executive relationship versus the ones that are struggling, a lot of it is about communication. It about the clear boundaries, so the tool you talked about, the empowerment agreement is really a brilliant tool.

But it also is about regular communications, so one of the things that I know works best in an agency with a key exec or somebody who’s a right-hand person, is that there is a standing meeting that both of them will bust a hump to honor.

Again, if I’m traveling, we talk on the phone or by Skype or Zoom or whatever. If we’re in person, we’re either in the office or we’re on a golf course or we’re at a bar. I don’t care where it is, but that the key exec comes with an agenda of things to talk about, and the owner also probably has his or her own agenda. But that that’s the key exec’s meeting, to update the owner on where they’re at with goals and what’s going on and decisions that are coming up, and it’s the time that the key exec truly has the owner’s full attention, because as you and I know, with owners, A, we’re a little scattered and oh, squirrel anyway, that’s just our nature, but B, owners are burdened with so much.

The to do list is so awful and so big, that even if somebody walks in your door and says, “Hey, do you have five minutes?” You’re looking at them, you’re sort of listening to them, but you’re also either mentally answering an email or you may even be looking at one of your screens, so they don’t really have your full attention.

Craig: Yeah. I think the key there is what you touched on just a minute ago, and it’s to bust hump to keep the appointment, right?

Drew: Yeah.

Craig: That’s the one thing that key execs will tell you, is that they’re looking for that consistency from their owner, and that kind of commitment because you’re right. We teach this in the workshops too, that to have these once a week meetings, or however you set them, once every two weeks or whatever it is, where you come to the table with a very clear agenda about what you want to discuss, and that time is sacred.

Drew: Yeah.

Craig: You have full attention so that you can address whatever needs to be addressed. The whole point about consistency is key. As an owner, I get that.

Sometimes, as you say, we’re thinking about so many different things, and whether it’s we’re looking at cash flow or whatever it is that’s occupying at the moment, you’ve got to be able to clear your head and spend that time with your key exec in order to make sure that the agenda and what is on there is being addressed in a way that helps move the agency forward.

Drew: Well, and not only is it the tangible getting through the agenda and making decisions, but it is, at the end of the day, this relationship only works if there is a great mutual respect and trust. I think having that regular meeting on the calendar and honoring it, even though you’re both crazy busy and you have a million things to do, A, what that does is it says, “Look, I can count on you, I can rely on you,” but it’s about the respect for the other person’s position.

Through time, by walking through those agendas and making those decisions together, and if the key exec is smart, over-communicating what’s happening on the day-to-day to ease the owner’s worries, especially in the front end of the relationship, pays off huge dividends in terms of building up the trust that allows the nanny to take the kids to the playground without mom or dad, and then to take the kids to the zoo, and maybe then I should take the kids in the car. It just builds up that trust in a way that I think is pretty hard to do any other way.

Craig: Yeah. The one thing that I’ll talk to key execs about is that I know this from my own experience of having a key person work for me, is that I always talk to them about you just can’t bring issues to the table without some proposed solution. I think often that that’s a great way to build trust.

If you’re a number two, and you want to develop that relationship solid with your owner, you have to come to the table with a proposed set of solutions. It may not be the solution that the owner chooses, but at least it shows A, you’ve looked at the problem, you’ve thought about the problem and you’ve addressed in a way that you think is a way to solve that issue, and that you’ve spent that time and you’re deep into it, so that at least they have something to consider as opposed to just throwing it out on the table and saying, “Well what are we going to do?” This approach, I believe, is a great way to build trust, because I’m coming to the table and I’m bringing a solution with me.

Drew: By the way, those key execs should be modeling that with whoever their supervising, and making sure that they’re doing that when they walk into their office.

Craig: Right.

Drew: That should be an expectation for agency employee behavior at every level. We even teach that at the AE boot camps, that look, I don’t care if you’re account coordinator, if you’ve identified a problem, A, awesome, come tell us right away, but B, come tell us in the context of I’ve given this some thought and I’m wondering if one of these three options might be a good solution, whatever that is.

Depending on your role and your experience level, A, that’s how you learn how to solve problems, and B, that’s how you move up the ranks because nobody wants someone to just hand them a problem.

Craig: Right. Just don’t throw it at my feet and walk away. You’re better to come to the table with some ideas about how we can solve it. That’s key.

Drew: As the owner, I think you also have to be receptive to the fact that every solution brought to you may not be the way you would solve it, but again, recognizing your own blind spots, that doesn’t mean that one of those isn’t the best solution.

Craig: Right. I think that goes back to being flexible and understanding that there are multiple ways to look at something and address things, and to be willing to look at it from all angels and to consider that, so that again, it just doesn’t all fall on your shoulders as an owner to fix everything yourself.

Drew: Right.

Craig: Because why have a number two if that’s what you’re going to do?

Drew: Right. I want to dig into the what makes an owner ready, because I honestly believe not every owner is ready to have a key exec, and some owners just aren’t ready to hand over the reins and let someone else help them raise the baby. I want to dig into that, but first, let’s take a quick break.

All right, I am back with Craig Barnes from AMI. Craig runs our key exec groups and hangs out with a lot of your top employees. Employees who have often been with the agency for a long time. He may be grooming them for ownership, they may be a minority owner already, but they already play a pivotal role in your shop.


Some of the Traits Owners Should Look for in a Key Executive

One of the things Craig, that you and I both see in agency owners, is a varying degree of business maturity in terms of the willingness to A, acknowledge that their idea isn’t always the right idea, B, to mentor and guide without choking, key employees, and C, the ability to share responsibility across the organization so that they don’t have to make all the decisions and everything’s not resting on their shoulders.

When you look at the key execs, what are some of the traits that the, I’m using air quotes here, the good owners, the owners who are ready to have a key exec, what are some of the traits they exhibit that listeners need to look in the mirror and see if they match that profile?

Craig: I think that the thing that I see among those that are groups that have a system that’s working really well, is that the owner is, first and foremost, interested in growing the agency, but not wanting to do everything, then realizing they can’t do everything themselves. They’re openly committed to wanting help, recognizing they can use the assistance so that they can focus on what they want to focus on, and truly empower that number two to do the task that they’re asking them to do.

One in particular I can think of, she’s responsible for running the day-to-day operations of the agency. In essence, she’s probably operating as a COO, and she’s been empowered to do that.

That owner wasn’t always ready for that, but has evolved into that because he can see what it takes in order for them to achieve what it is he wants to achieve as an owner and growing that agency, truly has put her in a position to be the COO, to make sure that the day-to-day operation is moving along and the problems are being addressed, and that at the end of the day, goals are being met, and that he can go and do what he needs to do to grow the agency. Most often, that is spending the time and the willingness to go out and sell the agency.

We’ve talked about this a million times, that no one sells the agency like the owner sells the agency.

Drew: Right.

Craig: If you’re truly going to put yourself in a position to do that, you have to have somebody who’s at the house, watching over things, making sure that that’s not burning down.

Drew: Absolutely.

Craig: I think that’s key. I would say to the owners out there who are considering this, you’ve got to take a hard look in the mirror and say, “Am I willing? Am I willing to either A, put my trust in somebody that-, that I already can … That I rely on already or I think I can tap into this in a way, and give them my full support?” If you can’t, you may not be ready. But I think if you want to grow, you have to be willing to put a system in place, with strong processes to support it, that allows somebody else to take those day-to-day tasks and carry them out in a way that matches the goals and the objectives of the organization, so that you can go focus on the things you want to do.

Maybe that you just want to play golf once a week. You should be able to do that right? Whatever it is that is important to you, but you have to be committed to really letting somebody do what it is you’re asking them to do. If not, it doesn’t work.

I see it all the time. I talk to owners as part of the coaching that we do, who get frustrated because they say, “You know, well I don’t know if this person really gets it,” and I always challenge them about, “Well let’s talk about, you know, what’s … What are you doing to help, you know, help, you know, give them the freedom they need t-, t-, to do what they need to do? What’s holding you back from that?”

Again, it’s control. It’s control, so you have to look in the mirror and say, “Can I relinquish some control, am I confident in releasing this control, so that I can let this person manage what needs to be managed, and I can do what I need to do?” I think that’s the key. It’s looking inward and being honest with yourself. If you know that you can’t do it right now, that’s okay, but if you want to grow, I think you have to set forth a plan and you have to figure out how you can get there. As I said, put processes in place and support that so that it gives you the confidence that at a point in time you can do that. You can let go a little bit at a time.

Drew: Yeah. I always think of it as it’s like when you’re teaching your kid how to ride the bike. They’re never going to learn how to ride the bike if you don’t let go of the back of the seat.

Craig: Right.

Drew: You can run alongside them for a while, and you can hold on, and honestly, at a certain point in time, the one who is more afraid of letting go is you the parent, not the kid. They’re ready to go. It’s us typically, who is holding them back.

One of the conversations I have with owners sometimes is, “Here’s the deal. If you don’t let someone else run the business, and you don’t let someone else help you take the controls and move the agency where you want it to go, A, you’re never going to be a sellable agency because no one wants to buy an agency that is dependent on the owner, who by the way, when they sell the agency, wants to leave, and B, you can only grow to the capacity that you have as a human being, to not sleep. Because at a certain point in time, there’s just too much to be done and you cannot do all the strategy, mentor all the employees, do the new business, oversee the finance, fill in the blank. You know, in many cases, service and clients, you are the one who is in the way of growth, so you’ve got to … You’ve got to decide, am I content creating a job for myself that just keeps me super uber busy, or do I really actually want to create a business that creates revenue, whether I’m at the table or not?”

Craig: Right. I think you also have to be honest with yourself about do you have the right person in place? Do you have the right person in place to help you do this? You alluded to it earlier, we are sometimes quick to hire, slow to fire.

Drew: Yeah.

Craig: You have to be willing to have an honest assessment to say, “Is this the right person?” You know, “Do-, have I-, do I really truly have the right person to help me?” If not, you’ve got to find that person, because oftentimes you’ll think okay, well this person’s been here long and et cetera et cetera, and it seems like a logical move for them.

Drew: I’ve promoted them four times, simply because they’ve been here for a while. It’s like a bank. If you’ve been there five year