You’ve heard me say it time and time again and my podcast guest John Fricks is singing the same tune about client business. “I think the CEO of an agency today really has two primary functions. One is to head up new business development. And the other one is to foster relationships internally that allow you to grow your existing clients.”

This is just one of the priceless nuggets that John offers up from his vast experience on both the agency and client sides of the fence as well as his life today as a consultant.

Join John and I as we talk about agency life, agency growth and how critical your team is to the agency’s success:

  • How John managed to get huge accounts at his small agency (Fricks/Firestone)
  • How to appeal to a CEO’s insecurities
  • What John does at his new agency AntonWest
  • Why agencies need to get involved in all areas of their clients’ business, not just the advertising
  • Staying up to date on new technology and ideas
  • Having great relationships with vendors that make them feel part of the business
  • How to recruit and retain top talent
  • What a culture must have to be truly collaborative
  • How to position your agency in the marketplace
  • How account people can gain the trust of their creatives
  • Why it’s important to allow your employees to fail (when trying)
  • What agency CEOs need to be focusing on today

A leader of such national accounts as the Home Shopping Network, The Disney Channel, CitiFinancial, and Papa John’s Pizza as the founder and sole principal of $110 million Atlanta-based Fricks/Firestone agency, John Fricks is focused on the same kind of growth at AntonWest. In the seven-year transition from Fricks/Firestone in Atlanta to AntonWest in Jacksonville, he consulted with CEOs of major corporations and agency owners all over the country.

John Fricks believes the key to problem solving is listening to clients describe their challenges so the agency can creatively advance a solution through its full arsenal of resources in digital, broadcast, print, and public relations. He will tell you that the proximity to navigable water was not part of the lure to Jacksonville, but you are sure to find him relaxing by a dock when not behind his desk.

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. The Transition from a Large Agency to a Smaller One
  2. About John’s Current Agency
  3. How Building Your Agency is Different in the Digital Age
  4. Fostering Creativity in the Workplace
  5. Diagnosing the Problems that Hinder Agency Growth
  6. Why Involvement in All Aspects of Client Business Leads to Creative Problem-Solving

If you’re going to take a risk of running an agency, shouldn’t you get the benefits too? Welcome to Build a Better Agency, where we show you how to build a better agency that can scale and grow with better clients, invested employees, and best of all, more money to the bottom line. Bringing his 25 plus years of expertise as both an agency owner and agency consultant to you, please welcome your host, Drew McLellan.  

Drew: Hey, everybody. Drew McLellan here with another episode of Build a Better Agency. You’re gonna love this episode. Just be prepared to take notes, be prepared to learn some new ways of thinking about your agency, and growth, and creativity. And you are gonna learn from someone who has done it and continues to do it.  

So, let me tell you a little bit about our guest today. So, John Fricks built an agency called Fricks/Firestone. And they serve clients like Home Shopping Network, and The Disney Channel, and CitiFinancial, Papa John’s Pizza.  

And then, John sold that agency and spent about the next five years or so consulting with corporations and agency owners before he decided that retirement was not for him. And about three and a half years ago, he formed a new agency called AntonWest, and they’re knocking it out of the park. And so, we’re gonna talk to John about all of that, about the evolution of the agencies that he worked with. We’re gonna talk about creativity in the workplace.  

John believes that the key to problem solving is listening to clients describe their challenges so that the agencies can really creatively advance a client business solution using its full arsenal of resources. He will tell you that the proximity to navigable waters was not part of the lure. His agency is now located in Jacksonville, Florida, but I suspect that those waters keep him pretty busy.  

When John is not busy running his agency and coaching his people, you will find him hanging out by a dock. And, John, I’m really grateful that you have stepped away from the dock for an hour or so today to hang out with us. Welcome to the podcast.

John: Well, thank you, Drew, and I appreciate you having me. I’ve been following your podcast, and I’m actually learning things every time I listen to one. So it’s an honor to be in one of them.


The Transition from a Large Agency to a Smaller One

Drew: Me too. I learn every time, and I’m looking forward to learning from you, as well. So, let’s talk a little bit about the transition. So you went from a large agency, the agency that you sold, to a smaller agency, a more nimble agency. Talk to me about how you manage and grow a smaller agency. And how that contrasts with what you did with your big shop, your original shop.

John: Well, it’s interesting that you asked the question that way because at Fricks/Firestone when I sold it, it was about $118 million in billings. We were still operating as though we were a small agency. We were very close knit as a group of people working on the agency. At our largest size, we only had 44 employees but we had…

Drew: Wow!

John: …major national accounts. And it just proves that adage that, you know, whether you’re working on a large account or a small one, you’re working just as hard. So it’s better to go after the larger accounts.

Drew: Absolutely.

John: But, at the end of the day, you manage them the exact same way. You’ve got a group of highly creative people that you have to motivate. I tell people all the time, there’s one thing you can’t do is legislate creative people. We’re all procrastinators in this industry and you’ve gotta find ways to motivate them to give the best they can. And to reach out and outside their comfort zone and do things that they normally wouldn’t do, without feeling that they were part of something. So that’s what we tried to instill in Fricks/Firestone. It seemed to work pretty well there. And that’s what I’ve tried to do at AntonWest.

Drew: So, you know, back to what you’re saying about being 44 people. As you know, there are a lot of small agencies out there. And a lot of times, I think, they’re a little afraid of, sort of, springing above their weight. And it sounds like, with 44 people, you guys didn’t let your “small size” get in the way of chasing after some giant brands.  

So, as you were approaching those brands, what was the story you told them to make them comfortable with the fact that you were not a big-bucks agency or one of the holding company agencies? How did you make that okay for them?  

John: Well, bear in mind, Fricks/Firestone I started in 1986. So that was a little bit before a lot of these big-bucks agencies came onto the scene. But we still had to compete with the larger agencies.

Drew: Sure.

John: And I actually had a lot of fun going after accounts that were housed within a big agency because we were able to sit down. First of all, I tried to go as high up in an organization as I can when I’m making those first contacts. Ideally with a CEO, because that’s the person, really, that is experiencing all the pain points. And looking toward the future and saying, “How do I take this company and move it from here to there with all these obstacles in place?”  

The marketing person, not to take away from their role or their excitement, but they’re really in it trying to build their own resume, have fun while they do it, and they’re looking forward to their next job, for the most part. And so, they’re not really the right person for the kinds of solutions that we were able to offer clients. So I’d, somehow, get into a meeting with a CEO, and in that meeting, I would not pitch the agency at all. I mean I know who we are. I’d tell them a little bit about us but I would, as quickly as possible, switch it to them. And just listen as they talked about what they were doing and trying to do. You know, all CEOs are, kind of, guarded about what they’ll tell you. And usually, it’s all more rosy picture than it really is.  

Drew: Yeah, absolutely.  

John: You know, we’re all agency guys, so we definitely know how that works, we do it ourselves. But if you ask the right questions, they’ll start to open up a little bit. Especially if you can further that conversation by actually talking about solutions or possible ways to approach something in that conversation. And almost always, I had an opportunity, maybe not right away but, you know, within three to six months. I would have an opportunity to go back to that client and work on a significant project for them that, you know, their existing agency was beyond their resource scope. Or it was something that they had a to-do list of the first 10 things and this was number 14, but in the CEO’s mind it was really number 2. You know, he just didn’t know how to solve it. So we had those kind of opportunities and we just exploited them, and we’re able to develop good relationships that ended up with the entire account.  

Drew: You know, both in your own role as CEO of a couple of agencies and I think also, probably as you coached agency owners in between your CEO roles, I’m sure that you had this conversation quite a bit. But agencies struggle with how to get to the CEO, and it sounds like you had some success around that. Did you have any tricks of the trade, or how did you make that happen?

John: Well, for one, I had the advantage of being in Atlanta, which has a lot of major corporate entities. So it was a good place to practice and learn. I had been involved in new business my entire career with agencies all over the country and so, I had that experience going for me when I started my own agency. But it’s really, just you start with the attitude of, “I can do this” and then you do it. You know? And you get rejected sometimes and sometimes, you surprise yourself. But if you can get through to the gatekeeper and make it not about advertising, or marketing, or selling, but really just an introduction of CEO to CEO. With some common point of discussion whether it’s a charitable cause, or something that you saw, a news tidbit about that person, just to line up with their interest, you’d be surprised, they’ll open the door.  

Drew: Yeah. I love that you said CEO to CEO. I’m constantly banging the drum with the agency owners that I work with. That there is no better new business person, if they want to swing above their weight to send out into the mean streets than the agency owner themselves.  

John: Absolutely. I mean, I’ve tried new business people and, you know, the relationship just starts at a totally different level. And it often causes more problems than it does opportunities.  

Drew: Yeah. You know, every once in awhile, there’s a new business professional, a biz dev person who actually earns their keep in an agency. But for every one of those, there’s probably 999 out there that actually cost the agency more money and more relationships than they gain them.

John: Oh, totally, I agree. And, you know, you also find yourself in that trap of they go out and get the lower hanging fruit, which is usually projects. And pretty soon, you’re identified as a project agency and that’s how they think of you. And when it comes to those bigger issues, you’re excluded from that conversation because they don’t know you that way.  

Drew: Right, right. Yeah, you’re not invited to the table to even have the conversations.  

John: Exactly.


About John’s Current Agency

Drew: Yeah. So, let’s fast forward now and talk a little bit about your current agency. Give us a little bit of an idea of how large that agency is and the kind of work that you guys do.  

John: Well, we’re about three and a half years old now. We have a small stable of clients, most of them are within the geographical area of what I call Greater Jacksonville. Although, we have one client that’s all over the country with contact points, which can be a nightmare sometimes. But just in the last three and a half years, we’ve already been able to help three clients become the fastest growing in their categories.  

Drew: Wow!

John: And we helped another group create a national trade organization that is growing like crazy all over the country so…

Drew: That’s how you keep clients right there.  

John: Yeah. You get your foot in the door and then help them. And as long as they’re growing and they see the value, they’ll keep you. We used to joke at Fricks/Firestone that we seem to have a seven-year itch on our clients. We were able to help them through all stages of growth for about seven years. And after that, they had had a couple of CEO changes, and probably three or four marketing directors. And you start to get that new-broom-sweeps-clean effect going. They want a bigger agency. But during the time we had them, we usually were able to make a large impact on their business.  

Drew: Well, and seven years today, that’s still a really long run with a client, absolutely.  

John: Oh, yeah, and especially if they’re growing like crazy. I mean, Papa John’s, when we got that one, it was a small, regional pizza chain that was trying to break out and we helped them do… I guess we had them a little over seven years, but they grew to more than 3000 units all over the country and internationally. And we handled everything for them. Everything from advertising to the co-op programs, to public relations, to internal employee motivational campaigns.  

I think that’s the key to growing accounts is being willing to step outside a comfort zone of just being an ad agency. Because a lot of the times, the problem is the one that can be solved by advertising, but you still have to be creative in how you get at it.  

Drew: Yeah. I think that so true. A, I think the word “creative” has been redefined in our business, and I think it’s really about creative thinking and problem solving. And, you know, our clients don’t care about their advertising and marketing. They care about advancing their business goals. And the more we are willing to roll up our sleeves and stick our nose in that, whether that’s the customer experience, whether that’s customer care, whether that is internal programs to recruit and retain great employees, whatever it is. When we can help them solve those problems and use our creativity to do it, that’s what sticky and that’s how you set the hook in a client.  

John: Absolutely.  


How Building Your Agency is Different in the Digital Age

Drew: So, you know, you’ve been in the business a while, and I say that respectfully because I have too. We’re both gray hairs in the business, I guess. How are you looking at your current agency differently? With all of the digital demands, and all of the analytics, and the data that we have today that we certainly didn’t have when you and I started our careers. How are you guiding and growing your agency differently perhaps than you did your first go around?

John: Well, first of all, I think you know, when you get to be our age, it’s important that we stay up to date with all the latest things that are going on. So I attend a lot of seminars on breaking technology. I think I continually surprise my staff when we start talking about things and very often, I know as much about what they’re talking about as they do. And they can’t quite believe that I do.  

I’m not a big Twitter person, but I certainly know its power and how to use it, and we use it to great effect for clients and Facebook same way. But one of the things that we’re trying to do is to make sure that we have a lot of very good external relationships with vendors that know their part of the business intimately and far better than we ever could as an agency. I mean, you know, there are agencies that try to be all things to all people by having all of those services within their house, and I think that’s a mistake.  

First of all, you’re adding a lot of unnecessary overhead, but you’re also limiting yourself to just what those people know. Because they’re gonna gravitate to solutions that are within that comfort zone. So we spend a lot of time identifying and nurturing those outside relationships with vendors. That allow us to really leverage our size to be much, much bigger, much more nimble, and much more on top of things than we could have if we just try to do it on our own.

Drew: Yeah, I think you’re absolutely right. I think it’s almost impossible, unless you’re gonna be an agency of, you know, 75 or 100 people. I think it’s impossible to keep all of that expertise in-house because the learning curve is so great. And the changes are so exponential, that it’s impossible for a small agency who has a digital team of a handful of people. There just isn’t enough bandwidth amongst a handful of folks to stay current on everything that’s going on.  

And so, I think you’re right. I think the blend of having some expertise in-house and people who can interpret all of the technology for our clients, partnering with people whose job it is to stay on the cutting edge, and on the bleeding edge, and to help us stay current. I think, for most small agencies, that’s the only way to get it done anymore.  

John: Yeah and I would say that that extends right on up there to all but the big, mega shops. You can’t hire enough people to stay on top of all the various technologies that are out there to be taken advantage of today, it’s impossible.  

But you’re right, you have to know they exist. You have to be able to think your way through the problem to know that you want that. And then you challenge them to help you come up with that solution.  

Drew: Well, and I think our job is to understand the technology enough to be able to apply it to the business problems that our clients have. And to be able to look at everything in the toolbox and know which tool to grab for any given circumstance or client.

John: I totally agree with you.  


Fostering Creativity in the Workplace

Drew: Yeah. So, I wanna talk about staffing and how to foster creativity in the workspace. So first of all, how do you recruit and attract the kind of talent that you know will serve your agency and your clients well? And then how do you create an environment that gets them to stay? Because, as you know, that is a major struggle for agencies today. Everybody is very concerned about talent acquisition and retention, especially around the younger employees, but you know, in all agencies, it’s a problem. So what are your tricks of that trade?

John: Well, let’s start by excluding the creative department for just a moment. Because, obviously, when you’re interviewing for them, you’re looking for experience, and creativity, all the things you would normally do. But talk about the other people in the agency that are just as important and vital to the ongoing success of the company.  

When I’m interviewing people, I’ve been told by employees that I’m a tough interviewer because I tend to throw them off stride. Because what I’m looking for are things that are not normally part of someone’s resume. It’s not necessarily experience. I’m looking for those innate character traits that you build around.  

You know, you can teach somebody processes, you can teach somebody how to go about doing something. But there are certain innate things that I look for, at least, that you just can’t reproduce in somebody that doesn’t have it to begin with. So I’m looking for people who have an innate curiosity about things, how they work, the questions they’re asking me, you know, to see where’s their thinking pattern going. And then in the middle of that, I may totally change the subject on them and throw a barrier in front of them to see how they handle that. Do they look at it like a giant tree that just fell across the road and they stopped and they don’t know what to do next? Or do they think about it for just a second and then figure out how to get around that tree? That that type of intuitive thinking, I think, is absolutely critical.  

Drew: So can you give us an example of barrier that you might throw out in an interview?

John: Well, it depends on the person. Let me think about that for just a second. Let’s say you’ve got somebody that is talking to you and they’re absolutely confident. They’re expressing confidence, they can do this, they’ve done it, they’re great at their job, and they’re telling me about their successes. So I may look at them and say, “So tell me about one that didn’t go right for you?” Or if it’s somebody that’s younger in school, you know, “What was your least favorite subject?” And then I might talk about that and I’ll say, “Well, what kind of grade did you get in that subject?” If they got an A in their least favorite subject, that’s a good sign for me. If they got an F, that kind of tells me something too.  

Drew: Right.

John: So I’ll go into a tangent like that. And depending on that answer, I make carry that thread for a little while longer. And ask them, “Well, if you had that to do differently, what would you have done?”  

And seeing are they laying the blame on somebody else? Or have they looked inward in their own character and said, “Well, you know, probably if I’d known that that was going to be this important, I would have done this, this, and that.” Or, “I wouldn’t have partied so much,” or whatever. You just don’t know. You don’t know where that’s gonna take you.  

But I’m really looking at what’s the underlying character of this person? Are they willing to take some risks? Do they take ownership in what they do? If they don’t like it, do they still make it better? You know? If the answers are no, then those are kind of danger signals to me. They’re not necessarily danger signals that say, “Don’t hire this person.” But they’re certainly cautionary signals that say, “Let’s learn a little bit more before we make a decision.”

Drew: Yeah, yeah. So what do you do in the environment? How do you mentor and nurture your employees so that, a, you get great work out of them, but b, so that they stick around? What is your philosophy around that?  

John: Well, the first thing that we do, we have…I don’t know that you wanna call it a motto but a guiding principle. And if you ask anybody at our agency, what is it, they all know it. It is, “You never say can’t and you can’t say never” because there’s always a way to get something done. It’s just a matter of are you willing to throw those resources at it or not. So we instill that in everybody.  

And the other thing that we do is we make sure that they understand that creativity is three things really. It’s a creative culture rather. It’s creative acceptance, it’s communication, and it’s collaboration. It’s like a three-legged stool. You take any one of those three away, and you’re not going to have a creative culture.  

So starting with our office space, it is open by design. We have private offices, but the offices are glass. But the biggest space in our office is a collaborative area dominated by a big whiteboard, and a couch, and some seating where we encourage brainstorming on major assignments. And we invite everybody in the agency to attend that has time. You never know where a great creative idea is gonna come from. It might be from an accountant, you know? You just don’t know. But that interaction of those different departments, in a collaborative setting, produces some interesting results. For one thing, you see a greater respect for each other coming out of that.  

I’ve had comments come back, over and over again, that an assistant accounts executive, “Wow! She came up with a great idea. We gotta take care of her.” You know? And when she goes back to the creative department with a brief, they’re gonna listen because there’s some mutual respect that’s been formed. So I think there’s a lot of that that goes on.  

But we also have a culture of “Don’t be afraid to try something.” Even if you fail, that’s okay, but I don’t want you to fail because you are afraid to try something. And, you know, hopefully, if you fail, you learn from it, and you don’t make the same mistake twice or three times. But I think you have to let people know, it’s okay to reach out past your comfort level and try things. And they are gonna fail sometimes.

Drew: Absolutely, right. If they don’t or if we don’t, it’s not just them, it’s us too. If we don’t then we’re not stretching too far outside the comfort zone.  

John: Absolutely true. And we have a client that, it’s probably the least sexy client you could imagine. And it’s okay for me to say that because they say it about themselves. But they do these giant $500,000 machines. They’re giant vacuum cleaners that are created to clean out sewers. Okay? Actually, you can’t think of anything less sexy than that.

Drew: Yeah, right, right.

John: And yet, the quality and the attention to detail they give to their product, it’s an employee-owned company. They have come from a distant second in that market to neck-and-neck with the leading competitor. And about 30% of their business now is overseas, international. And a lot of that was done by us driving some public relations programs for them.  

In fact, our first assignment, for this client, was actually advertising, but when we were… You know, I was taking a tour with the president of the company and they had all these $500,000 trucks, a whole bunch of them lined up outside. They were parked everywhere. And I’m thinking to myself, “Wow! This company is either doing really, really well, or really, really poorly.”  

So I said, “Well, what’s with all of these trucks? I mean, I didn’t expect to see these many.” And he said, “Oh, that? We’re sending a shipment of trucks to Peru.” And I said, “Peru?” and he says, “Yeah.” He says, “It’s really a big deal for us because it represents a lot of dollars and we’re the only guys that are competing internationally.” And I said, “You have got to do public relations about this. You can’t just keep this quiet.”

Drew: Right. Yeah, you’ve got to tell that story.  

John: Yeah, they were very hesitant. And they said, “Well, you know, these trucks are here because they’re getting ready to be shipped out in 10 days.” Now the last thing you would think you would do, as a new agency, a brand new agency, our first day, is to say to a client, “You need to do a PR campaign first.” And only 10 days to do it, and we’re not a PR firm, and say, “If you agree, we’ll take care of it. We’ll make sure it comes off right.” And they trusted us with that assignment.

We pulled it off, and we had major press. The governor was involved.  We had the Port of Jacksonville involved, which later became a client because of our doing this program with this client called Vac-Con. And it was the start of putting them on the map to really grow. But that was risk, you know? And you’ve got to be willing to do those kinds of things.  

I brought that back to the agency, and everybody said… First off they, I said, “Wow! How are we gonna do this? We only have 10 days?” and I said, “Yeah” and then I said, “Let’s get everybody together and let’s figure out how we do it.” And we created the plan of action, we got approval, and then we went to work, and executed it, and pulled it off. And that was an ad agency doing a PR program that looking back, I would dare say, was probably pulled off better than any PR firm could have done. So, go figure.  

Drew: Yeah. I think a lot of it is just about being willing to do whatever it takes. And I think that attitude of, you know, getting to know the client’s business. And suggesting solutions, whether you are the provider of those solutions or not with the goal of helping them solve their problems. You know, we go out into the field and we do research with CMOs every year and we did one last, a summer ago, the summer of 2015. Where we talked to CEOs and CMOs about, you know, how they hire and fire agencies and why. And the bottom line is they want to feel like we care about their problems and are trying to solve them, as desperately as they are. And when we do that we earn an incredible amount of trust and credibility with them, that serves both their business and ours very well.

John: Yeah, and you have to have that. They have to know that you’re gonna give them the right solution, whether or not you’re the right provider of that solution. Now, I think I am a big believer that if it’s at all possible to do, you stay involved with that assignment, even if it’s not your area of expertise.  

Drew: Absolutely.  

John: And that’s where that network of outside people comes in very handy. Because these are all people we work with, they know we look out for them, that they get paid like they’re supposed to. And we value their input as much as the direction we give them. And they are very loyal to the agency and it’s come in handy a lot of times.  


Diagnosing the Problems that Hinder Agency Growth

Drew: Absolutely. So, you know, after you sold your first agency and before you started the new one, I know you did some consulting with agencies. And you were really kind of a growth strategist for those agencies. When you walked into a new agency that was stagnant so even… Maybe they’re not even shrinking, but they’re not able to grow, they sort of feel like