5 Tips for Running A Successful Agency

I was asked a great question by Lauren Wire on Twitter last night. She asked

What type of agency did you like working in most? You like running your one now?

And normally I would respond quickly but in this case it’s a terrific opportunity to put more text than what fits into 140 characters to answer. Plus, I’m hoping others can relate or at least gain some knowledge from my experience.

While I’m a marketer at heart, I’ve been dealing with immense change in the communications and marketing field for the past 15 years. My first full time job was as a Website Coordinator at a cancer hospital. At this in-house gig the rules for web marketing were still being written. And later, when W3C standards were being held back by noncompliant browsers, I lead the redesign of major corporate websites. I was working with online communities and running listening programs for clients long before it was cool. And I’ve been the part of several organizations, including agencies, that claimed to want to go through massive changes in order to adapt to the changing marketing landscape (yes, this is where Large Media got its tag line).

With this, I found it to be unfair to say which type of agency I liked working in the  most. They were both PR firms, both faced different but similar challenges and I’ve always wanted to have my own business. A large agency can give you opportunities to work on large brands with big budgets, and a smaller firm has more latitude but smaller budgets. Larger agencies tend to have more politics and bureaucracy but global opportunities, and small agencies force you to be ultra-scrappy. Depending on your personality and goals it’s really a tough call. My goal was to start up. I was promised it as part of working at a large firm but they failed to fulfill that promise. And while I enjoyed working closely with all levels of staff and clients at a smaller shop, because in my heart I wanted to start up it became a business decision to start my own agency.

The second part of the question is a no-brainer. I abso-freaking-lutely love it. While I’m grateful for the opportunities I had – travel the world, work on the world’s largest brands, speak in front of hundreds of marketing professionals regularly, etc – the reality is that sort of lifestyle takes its toll. You don’t see a lot of older people working in agencies, and there’s a reason for that — burnout. When I started up I wanted to make sure that my agency would be based on some core principles and that I was creating an agency I would want to work at.

Given all of that, I always turn back to my college learnings so that I’m not leaving any bit of information I’ve learned out. This lesson was taught while listening to numerous CEOs during college talk about their business. One specifically said that, “if you want to start your own business someday, learn on someone else’s dime”. By doing so, you’re getting paid while also learning their business. And while you’re earning your keep, “remember what they did well and what you would never do if it was your business.”

And with that, after having done a lot of learning and listening, I present to you 5 tips for running a successful agency:

1. Be Honest.

I put this one first because there’s nothing worse than working for someone that isn’t honest with employees and clients. It’s difficult to maintain respect for your boss when you catch them in lies, and even worse it will cost you business if you lie to a client. Making grandiose statements like “We invented the category!” might sound great in a made for TV movie but in reality your clients will see right through it. I’ve seen it first hand what happens when you’re honest about the state of the business, mistakes or otherwise and it’s never a good idea to try and hide or cover up the truth. People talk, clients talk and eventually it will come back to bite you in the rear.

Also, being honest builds trust. When a client asks me what I think of the latest shiny object, I give an honest answer without cheerleading, jumping into jargon or reciting what another person wrote. Remember, a good client respects an agency partner that puts the client’s needs first. This may also include turning down assignments or telling the client when you believe they’re wrong. Please note this is different than just being a skeptic or cynical jerk.

2. Focus on your clients.

Thanks to social media, you’re now able to broadcast like never before. Great, right? Wrong. Your clients should come first, not self promotion. Guess what your client sees when you’re off jerking around at conferences? That you’re out jerking around at conferences. Same with tweeting, Facebooking and blogging. Oh, and that awesome location based app or trip planning app that seamlessly posts your whereabouts to Facebook? Yeah, that too. There’s more value in paying attention to your client’s needs than that of the Twittersphere or Digerati.

3. Be smart but don’t pretend to know it all.

Let’s start with the notion that no one can know everything. Once we agree there it’s downright impossible to know every startup, fact or answer all the time. Also, being smart and being savvy politically are two different things. Smart people can invent things; political people can create dependencies and leverage to get their way. It’s important to understand that they are not the same thing, as many smart people become flustered by politics in the workplace. This is one of the biggest reasons why agencies have such high turnover — they create infrastructures that don’t reward intellect and ideas but do reward politicians and villainy.

4. Don’t over promise.

We all want to please. Hell, we work in one of the highest-staked service industries. Being first, being the loudest and getting things done early is the hallmark of an overachiever; also on that list is failing to account for the amount of work that needs to be done and the dependencies required to make things happen. With that, unless you are the person doing all of the work with a cleared calendar, you should never promise immovable deadlines; those that work in the digital world know what I mean.

Think of it this way: While it’s simple enough to race over to GoDaddy or Blogger or WordPress and slap up a templated site, setting goals, creating a user experience, drafting content, installing plugins and, well, you get the idea, don’t happen in a few hours. Add in multiple parties, approvals and revisions and it’s a recipe for disaster. Pro tip: Launching on a Monday with a press release on the wire is quite possibly the absolute shittiest thing you can do to your client, designers and developers. Sure, it makes for a great news cycle, but it’s not practical or realistic (News flash #2: PR hits rarely drive web traffic, let alone sustained web traffic).

Similar to the example above, don’t promise promotions or rewards to your staff and don’t seed ideas into a client’s head that you aren’t sure can happen; it creates disappointment for everybody.

5. Surround yourself with great talent.

This could have gone under point #2, however it’s worth noting that while the quarterback gets all of the glory, it takes a great offensive line, wide receivers, running back, defense and special teams to make the team successful. This isn’t by accident and there’s a huge lesson to be learned by agencies. Hiring people to fill seats versus finding great talent means you’re compromising the work, which ultimately is what clients will judge you on.

There you have it. Five things that will help you build a great agency. They all seem simple, but you’d be surprised how the work and clients become compromised once the politics, P&L (profit and loss) sheets, time sheets/billability and other garbage that most agencies face get in the way.

0 thoughts on “5 Tips for Running A Successful Agency

  1. Angela Younas says:

    Great article David! Being honest with clients and colleagues is undoubtedly the best way to run an agency, I also appreciated the fact that you mentioned that a person can't know everything about social media! This is very true! All of 'us' social media marketers love what we do and work hard to keep up with this fast paced, constant developing industry. Ah… how we love it though! Never a dull moment! 😀

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