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:
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:
I’ve been doing some research on the common traits of successful entrepreneurs, trying to understand my clients better so that I can help them build stronger businesses. Here are a few things that you might find interesting–particularly the last item. What’s it like to be in your shoes? How do you understand your world? What would I see following you around for a day? Successful people like you:
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....
Learn how to direct this process at an upcoming event in Nashville on September 23, but let’s look at the timing, first. Things are going well at your firm and for several years a key employee has demonstrated unusual leadership. They’ve taken over some of the roles that you’ve never been able to let go of in the past, and you’d hate to lose them. The team at large already respects their role and they’re functioning as if they owned the place (in a good way) already.
There are keys to help you know when and if you should move forward in making them a partner. You should consider moving forward when these four things are true...
I’m not even sure who is writing this, frankly. It doesn’t sound like me. I’m normally the advocate for understanding your business well and aiming for the right metrics. It almost sounds like opposite day or April 1. I want you to know that it feels that way to me, too. I’m nervous.
I’d like to make a case for less or no business planning in certain circumstances. I want you to forget about the consequences sometimes and just do what your gut is telling you.
You do come close to this sort of recklessness from time to time, after all, but it’s usually when you’re tired or mad. What you’re really thinking or what’s really important comes flying out. Like the inner tube you keep holding under water, what you’re really thinking launches out of the water like a rocket as the frustration finally matches your fear of being honest and you drop the pretense.
Pricing is a great example of this. When you want or need that project, you price it lower than you should because you’re afraid of losing it. When you’re already pretty busy and you don’t feel any panic about getting it, you’ll price it higher. If the prospect says yes, you’re fine. If they say no, you’re fine. It just doesn’t matter quite as much at that point because you don’t care all that much either way. The money would be nice. So would not....
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....
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.