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 they’re at a brick wall. What did you look for, and what kind of problems were you diagnosing, and what were some of the solutions that you encouraged and coached them to embrace to be able to grow? Because I know you helped a lot of agencies grow.  

John: Well, you know, usually when I go in, the first thing that the owner is looking for is how do we position ourselves in the marketplace so that we’re different from the other agencies?  

Drew: Wait. John, you mean we’re a full-service, integrated agency is not how every agency should position themselves?

John: Those are all nice descriptions but on any given day, on any pitch, everybody sounds the same.  

Drew: Absolutely.  

John: You know, In fact, one of the reasons I sold Fricks/Firestone was I had gotten it to a point where I was just getting, kind of, beat down by just keeping everything going. And because we had gone through 9/11 and a whole bunch of things.

And when the people came in to take a look at our books and, you know, validate that we really had the billings we said we had, and everything else.  One of the accountants that was on that assignment, they were there about three weeks, came into my office toward the end of it. And she said, “John,” she said, “I wanna tell you something. I’ve been doing this for almost 20 years, and of all agencies that we’ve looked at, you’re the first agency, I can think of, that could actually say, you helped 13 companies become the fastest growing in their categories.” And as soon as she said that, I said, “Debbie, do you know if you had told me that even two weeks ago, I wouldn’t be selling this place?” That was my point of difference and I couldn’t see the tree for the forest.  

Drew: Isn’t that crazy?

John: Yeah. I guess is that adage, “Doctors should never be their own doctor, an attorney should never be their own attorney, and an agency should never be their own agency.” You just get too close to it. But, yeah, it’s the age-old struggle of how do you position yourself in the marketplace so that you’re different?  

And, I think, it starts from that but all the agencies that I worked with, when I first went in… To get back to your original question. The first thing I did was do an audit of their employees, and I would do one-on-ones with each of them. Let them know that it was totally confidential.  It would not get back to the owner in any way that could be traced back to them. And I said, “What do you think of your role in this agency? Is it what you want it to be? How could it be better? Do you see yourself as a creative person? Do you see yourself as being able to do a lot of good creative work? What are your clients saying about your work? What needs to be different?”

And start the process of identifying the internal truths about that agency. Because like any client, your positioning has to be based on reality. If it’s not, you’re living a lie and you can’t make that lie real no matter how you try. So it’s gotta be based on what you really are.  

So I would do that audit and from that, I would make certain conclusions about that agency. And if it was out of sync with what the owner wanted it to be, I would start to think about, “Well, how do we get those two to come closer together?” And very often, you would find… You know, we’re agencies, we’re in the business of being creative, and you would think this would be duh subject. But so many times, agencies weren’t being viewed as creative, even though they might have had great creative people on board, and willing clients that wanted great creativity. I mean I also talk to the clients. But, you know, the feedback you get inside is, “We’re not supported by management. Account people won’t take a great idea to the client, they just come back and say, ‘The client won’t do it, it’s too risky.'”  

And I would say, “You know that’s not true.” If you base that creative around a solution to a real problem, the client is gonna want it. Those are the easiest things to sell in the world are creative solutions that actually are delivering a solution. So many agencies, you know, it’s creative for the sake of creativity, and that is just such a mistake. It’s gotta be based on a real problem.  

Drew: So after you help an agency understand how to position themselves, and I agree with you, it’s easier for an outsider to see that than it is for… You know, it’s difficult. And we tell this to our clients all the time, right? It’s impossible to describe the outside of a bottle when you’re inside the bottle. So after you’ve helped an agency, sort of, recognize what their positioning is, how do you help them take that and actually grow their business?  

John: If they are involved in an upcoming pitch, I will actually work with them on that pitch and show them how that positioning can be brought across to the client. If they’re not in a pitch and don’t have one that’s imminent, I don’t hold myself out as “I’m a new business guru, I’ll go get the business for you.” That’s not what I’m there for.  

But if they’re not in an active pitch or ones coming up, we will actually create an internal one just to go through the process. And it starts with a creative brief on the client because I think that’s extremely important.  

So one of the things that I stress to account people all the time is, “Look, if you want to have the true respect of your creative, and you want them to bend over backwards to do great work for your clients. They have to trust that if they bring you a great idea, you’re gonna go sell it, regardless of what you think.” You know, so a creative brief is not just about communicating the basic requirements, you know, your target audience. The problem you’re trying to solve or the primary message you wanna convey, and any mandatories. It’s really the only way that an account person has to be able to hold the creative in check if they, for some reason, just flat out don’t like it.  

And if you write the brief correctly, and the creative comes back with the assignment exactly on target, your obligation is to go sell it. If you don’t like it, there are ways to get that across, but it’s gotta be legitimate. It’s gotta be tied to that brief. For example, you might have written into the tone of the project, a certain tone and it’s off. So it doesn’t need to be that the creative solution is off strategy. It may be off tone or may be something else may be weak about it. So that you can ask for a second one. That’s the only place that the account person really has an opportunity to control what’s coming back on that creative.  

And one of the things that, I think, that I try to do in those meetings is I bring everybody into open-brainstorm sessions. And we invite everybody in the staff into that and let them be part of the process. But we talk about the challenge, then we brainstorm it. Like any brainstorm, you start off by saying, you know, “Anything works. There’s no criticism. No idea is too bad as long as it’s on the strategy of the problem we’re trying to fix.” So as long as you stick to that, throw it out there. If it doesn’t fit there, we may pull it back in so we don’t spend a lot of time going down the wrong direction. But then they have a chance to interact together and work on that.  

And one of the things that always comes up in those meetings, especially a new pitch, in a new business pitch, is not just about, all right, who’s the client, who are you pitching to? What kind oerson is he? Is it a person that is willing to take risks? Is it a person who has to have all the T’s crossed and I’s dotted? Who’s gonna be in that meeting? Is the CFO gonna be in that meeting? Where’s the pitch to him, subtly, to show him that there’s an ROI in this? Is the sales guy gonna be in there from the company? He looks at marketing as an obstacle a lot of times. So if this whole thing is all about marketing and no sales, we’re not gonna win.  

We’d start to talk in those kinds of terms in that meeting. And then just start pulling people to think about different ways of approaching the client that actually leave memorable marks. Because unless it’s an RFP, that… And I hate RFPs. We don’t participate in ’em. If you get an RFP, it’s an RFP as a client that already knows what the problem is, and the solution, and they’re evaluating you for other reasons. So unless you’ve got a personal relationship in there or you help write the RFP, you’re not gonna win.

Drew: So what I tell agencies is, unless, you believe you have an unfair advantage, odds are, you have an unfair disadvantage.  

John: Absolutely. Almost every time.  


Why Involvement in All Aspects of Client Business Leads to Creative Problem-Solving

Drew: Yeah, agreed. So let’s go back to the culture because I wanna be mindful of our time, and I wanna make sure I get to this. So talk to me about the culture that you create inside your agency that cultivates this new definition of creative, this creative problem-solving for clients. Not only amongst your creative department but in your entire agency. How do you foster that amongst your team? So that they feel that they have the green light to take risk and to think bigger and differently?  

John: Well, at our agency because I’m involved with all of our clients, I’m in those meetings. So they see, firsthand, that I’m practicing what I’m preaching. I open those boundaries up. We talk about different approaches that have nothing necessarily to do with advertising. We talk about the strategy. We bend and mold that. We do the strategy upfront and then create from that. A lot of agencies create and then they build a strategy to justify.  

But if you start with that strategy, and you open up the thinking, and they see me doing it in that meeting, and they see other people. Jefferson Rall, our Creative Director, very good at this. He’s got a great business sense. They see that happening and they see that it’s okay to come up with those kinds of ideas. And then in practice, they see that as we put these things into place, if something does go wrong, we don’t point a finger at somebody and say, “You screwed that up. Next time, you’re out of here.” We say, “Okay, what could we have done better about that, that that wouldn’t have happened?” And then we incorporate that into the next one as a learning experience.  

So we encouraged our employees to take chances. And I mentioned this earlier, but we let them know it’s okay to fail if you try. It’s not okay to fail by not trying. And if you learn from those failures and you say to yourself, “I’m never gonna say can’t and I can’t say never.” Then you know, you’ve got the freedom to come up with ideas and nobody’s gonna criticize you for that. They’re only gonna criticize you if you sit there like a wimp and don’t bring up anything. Somebody is gonna look at you and say, “You’re quiet.”

Drew: Yeah, why are you here?

John: “What are you thinking about,” yeah. We call them out on that regularly. And when I say we, it isn’t me all the time. Sometimes, it might be a junior art director that looks at a senior art director and says, “How come I’m the only one giving ideas?” You know, they call each other out on it. But it’s all about that communication and collaboration, and seeing by example, and seeing by actual practice that we really do want to do the right thing for our clients.  

I have never once had a meeting with anybody in the agency where I said, “We can’t do that because there’s no money in it for us.” or “We can’t do that because we’re an ad agency not a whatever.” You know? We’ll never have that conversation with anybody at those levels. It’s, as far as they’re concerned, come up with the idea that solves the problem and we’ll figure out how to make money on it.  

Drew: Yeah, and we’ll figure out how to do it. Right?  

John: Exactly.

Drew: Who do we need to partner with to get it done?

John: Exactly.  

Drew: Yeah. So, John, this has been a great conversation. I could chat with you for a long time but I want to make sure that we wrap this up in a timely fashion. So I have one more question for you. So what do you believe is a CEO of an agency’s biggest role or responsibility? Where should a CEO be investing his or her time to best propel their agency forward to the future?

John: I think the CEO of an agency today really has two primary functions. One is to head up that new business development. And the other one is to foster that relationship internally that allows you to grow your existing clients. If you’re not focused on both of those areas, you are missing giant opportunities and going to experience problems down the road. And I think that’s the CEO’s role.  

You can delegate everything else off, but leading that new business effort and being the leader within the agency of the culture. And making sure that everybody knows this is what we’re trying to build. He can’t abdicate responsibility for those two roles, or she.

Drew: Amen. And listeners, I swear to God, I did not tell John to say that. I know you hear me harping on those two things that those are the two most important roles that you, as an agency owner have. So I promise you, that was completely uncoached but I could not agree with John more.  

John, this has been a great conversation. And I know the listeners have taken away lots of nuggets that they can apply immediately into their agencies. So thank you so much for your time and for sharing your expertise with us.  

John: Well, Drew, I appreciate you having me. And if any of your listeners are CEOs of agencies, and they wanna just talk about their firm, and maybe add something to it, I’m always glad to make a new connection. And certainly, I would invite them to do so.

Drew: How is the best way for them to get a hold of you, John?

John: Probably through the agency. My email is [email protected]. And our phone number is 904-701-4140.  

Drew: Okay. And we’ll make sure that that information is in the show notes as well, everybody. So John, again, thank you for your time. Folks, thank you for your time as well. I’m grateful that you take the time to listen to these podcasts. I hope they’re incredibly helpful to you. If you need me, you know how to get ahold of me. I’m [email protected]. If you are finding value in these podcasts, a couple of things you can do. Number one, please subscribe. So that every week, you get notified that there’s a new episode and you don’t have to go hunting for it or remember to go look for it.  

And if you’re finding value, one thing you could do that I would really be grateful for is we live on ratings and reviews both at Google, and Stitcher, and at iTunes. That’s how other folks find us and how we are able to attract great guests like John. So if you can do that for me, I would be most grateful.

I will be back next week with another guest and another hour of learning for you. Until then, go out and invest that time in new business and in your people, both of those will bear a huge fruit for you. So I’ll catch you next week. Thanks so much.

That’s all for this episode of Build a Better Agency. Be sure to visit to learn more about our workshops and other ways we serve small to mid-sized agencies. While you’re there, sign up for our e-newsletter, grab our free eBooks, and check out the blog. Growing a bigger, better agency that makes more money, attracts bigger clients, and doesn’t consume your life is possible here on Build a Better Agency.