Even the most confident agency principals (and consultants) experience self-doubt if the pipeline runs dry. What was previously a genuine confidence now stands behind a quickly erected facade of bravado. While agencies in the US are generally doing well, some of you experience this every few years and others are experiencing it now for the first time since 2008. And outside the US, the agency market is generally flat.
But everything changes when the pipeline goes dry, right? Not only do you lack some of that killer instinct that stems from confidence, it all rolls up to further impact your psyche.
Times like these are when you should be able to reach for the switch to make it rain. Here are the things that you’d ideally be able to do:
There are two big mistakes that creative firms are making when it comes to account management:
Let me explain the mistakes in more detail, the implications that flow from the mistakes, and how to fix them.
At ReCourses, we have studied 21,000 employees in the creative services field. Each of those individuals has completed a lengthy qualitative/quantitative survey, participated in a personality profile exercise, and been interviewed for 20–30 minutes. We’ve compared that data with agency performance to surface these two results when an employee with a project management mentality is put in charge of a client relationship.
Effective client relationship management requires the right people, and that job may be....
When I commissioned this illustration, I thought the accompanying insight piece would be fairly easy to develop. The idea was to write about your competitive advantage and how to protect your agency from competition.
Not so much! Writing it has taken three times as long as normal, and it’s forced me to reexamine how I think about the topic. I will think out loud about the five things I tossed on this journey and then we’ll settle on the three that make sense.
As the principal of a creative firm, one of your duties is to defend the agency from external threats, similar to how a moat protected a castle. It was the first line of defense against invaders. Back then, though, the enemies were few and easily identified. Now they chip away at the walls from all directions. Some are actual competitors (other agencies), some are sea changes (client-side work replacing the very castles themselves), and some are existential (how we think about marketing). You aren’t repelling a huge mass of marauding cretins every decade; now the competition is a way of life, hitting the castle walls around the clock.
Your moat (competitive advantage) cannot be:
So after eliminating two early options for the sort of protection that a moat can provide, we’re still searching for an answer. Here is where I think we need to add “sustainable” to qualify the search.
Your moat (sustainable competitive advantage) cannot be:
I regularly hear agency principals boast of two things. It seems cruel to burst their bubble, so I don’t say anything in the moment, typically. But I’ve now heard these two things said so many times that it’s probably worth a quick discussion. The first one goes like this:
“We’ve built our agency entirely on referrals. We’ve concentrated on doing good work and our reputation has just spread over the years and we can hardly keep up with the opportunities that come our way organically.”
I do understand the sentiment, which seems to be a combination of these things:
There’s more going on behind the scenes, though, and I’ll offer an alternative interpretation of a firm that relies largely on referrals:
Most aspects of your business will run better without you. Your people will thrive when you aren’t lowering prices all the time or blowing up creative two hours before a presentation.
But over the long term, it will be a disaster if you step away. The effects will be insidious and nearly unmeasurable, but here’s what will happen if you don’t show up over long periods of time:
I’ve been wondering about this. Some of you are content to have a job, essentially, where you can be your own boss. That’s so critically important that you’ll take on more risk, make less money, and do many things that you don’t like (managing people?).
It doesn’t have to be that way, though. Nor does one overriding goal have to stomp the life out of the other goals that are important to you. However you express that hope for your business, I’d like to suggest that the hope is best comprised of a healthy balance between multiple things that are important to you. Here’s a stab at how you might phrase this in one single sentence, comprised of multiple themes:
Risk-taking is a crazy thing, right? I think you should make a lot of money, but I hate debt. I advocate ruthless positioning, but I don’t think you should grow too fast. I think you should never compromise on culture, but I think you should make some risky hires.
We all have a different tolerance for risk, too. Some of you move from one gorilla client to the next, and others can’t stomach any single client that represents more than ten percent of your business. On the other hand....
On the face of it, that headline is not a very controversial statement, but if you think about your client base for a minute, chances are good that most of them are using a smaller subset of the services that you provide. Like most of business, things start simple enough and then grow more complex as you position your firm to take advantage of any opportunity that could possibly surface.
I picture some of you with the biggest boat you can afford, patrolling the harbor with the biggest net that’ll fit in the boat, trawling it for anything that wiggles! With that mindset you’re naturally going to allow a client to nibble a little in hopes that you can set the hook later. Agencies that live off that promise, though, keep adding things until eventually it looks like the menu from the Cheescake Factory! It was a one-pager in 1978 and now it has 250+ items on 21 pages. So we might want to avoid....
For the most part, agency principals love the challenge of running an entrepreneurial enterprise. The difficulties are real, but they wouldn’t have it any other way. The only common denominator is their aptitude for risk, and they are very good at leveraging that advantage. Otherwise they are different people who look for different things from their experience.
But their greatest fears–what keeps them up at night–are surprisingly similar. It took me years and hundreds of interviews to see the patterns. I could make a recommendation that was easily supported, only to find an invisible barrier that kept a principal from exercising what otherwise would be good judgment. I’ll list those fears that you’ll bump up against as you manage your own creative firm. Maybe you’ll see yourself in a few of these and then adjust your reactions accordingly. There are five....
Yeah, this is a campfire discussion for sure! Sitting under the stars dreaming about how a chunk of money would change our lives (though it hardly ever does). But unless you know Warren Buffet’s 84-year old sister and can talk her team into giving you more than the average $4,800, this is just hypothetical.
Answering that question, though, clarifies what’s important to you, how you want the future to be different, and how you identify the performance gaps at your shop.
Try asking your staff to answer this question for the next staff meeting, giving them just these two guidelines to follow, and then compare your answers:
As you try this hypothetical exercise, here’s how you might frame your thinking. What investment, over time, will give our firm the greatest separation from the rest of the crowded competitive field? So what are the investments that will achieve that goal?
Buying new computers for the creative department will pause the whining for a few months, but....
Tight positioning is always good: you make more money, you know what you're talking about, you know where to find your clients and what to say to them, and you know who to hire to fulfill the promises that you make. That's the premise, and it usually works.
The problem is that there are many outliers who undermine that claim. Many firms who aren't positioned well are making a lot of money. I love that, though, because usually it means that they are either lucky, confident, or disciplined, or a combination of those qualities. I'll go further and say that there are no successful generalists firms who aren't one or more of those things. But as I said, that doesn't bother me at all. More power to them.
What bothers me is the inverse of that: well-positioned firms who aren't making money. They just aren't killing it, and their performance mimics their poorly-positioned peer firms. That bothers me deeply, in part because it undermines what I've been saying to anyone who will listen. That's what I want to talk about here: why well-positioned firms are yielding poor financial results.
I am sitting on the deck this morning, watching the millions of green leaves drink the water as the rain tries to get past them to rest on the earth. There's a 700' drop off a rock cliff to the two waterfalls below. I woke up thinking about courage, but I decided to describe a world where it's absent.
You're a principal running a digital, marketing, advertising, public relations, or design firm. You're creating jobs and doing good work, all the while trying to remember some days why you do this in the first place. It's the weekend and you can't wait to get back to work or you can't stand the idea of feedng the machine again on Monday. From time to time it's good to step back and get a helicopter-down view of what your life looks like. So here goes.
If You Had Less Courage...
But you don't have less courage, which is why I love you.