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’ve fielded more inquiries about succession recently than at any time in the last two decades. By succession, I’m including merger, acquisition, closure, transfer to key employee(s), and acqui-hire transactions. It’s worth looking at what might be behind this trend:
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’ve been thinking about this concept recently, phrasing it like this: things can get a lot better for you, but they need to get a little bit worse, first. And that’s a problem for many of us because we don’t stop and reexamine what we’re doing until our backs are against the wall, and at that point we can’t really imagine holding on a little longer while it gets even just a little bit worse. These difficult moments usually represent less than 20% of your agency experience, but they change your perspective and forge who you are.
But the most critical reason we don’t make as much progress as we could is our own success. It traps us. We scratch and claw our way to a certain lifestyle inside a fairly predictable, arranged world. We know that it’s not what it could be but we’d rather tweak it than blow it up. If we tweak in the wrong direction, we can untweak it. But if we blow it up and nothing else rises in its place, we’re sitting there cross-legged on the ground with dust in our hair wondering what’s next.
I think you should use this same framework when you evaluate prospective clients who want to work your own agency. How badly do they want change? What’s pushing them to consider it? What will an “unchanged” environment look like? Who believes in it and what obstacles will they have to overcome within their own culture? How does the current mess “work” for them, and what are they afraid of when working with you? If they aren’t afraid of something, your work is not that substantial.
The Googleization of the world has created this notion of hyper relevance: I can find the exact thing I want quickly and anywhere in the world and maybe for free. Google algorithms are built on the notion of self-learning. I search for a phrase, Google gives me options, and eventually most of us choose the most relevant link, and then Google serves you that constantly self-healing data. Essentially we’re all unpaid Google volunteers.
In that context, Google is only going to serve queries to you and your firm if you are hyper relevant to the query. All this has fed the specialization craze. Need a marketing firm that understands how best to do social media for credit unions? How to find transactional leads for life insurance products? How to reach young girls as they become women? If so, we have your answer and we know that niche better than anyone in the world. By the way, this deep specialization is also why the average F1000 company has dozens of agencies.
So we end up with all these very specialized firms, which is a good thing, but how do they see the world in a larger context? How do they keep learning from the questions and not just the answers? Enter this notion of a “T-shaped” firm with deep expertise and broad context. You’ll never get discovered and followed unless you’re an expert, but you’ll never be a good expert unless you’re grounded....
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.
Successful entrepreneurs have too many people talking to them, each with some nugget that would change their lives. The endless stream of coaching comes from your employees, the owner you bought the agency from, the guy in your business roundtable who always seems to have that idea for you, and the newest business book. Oh, and your clients. The successful entrepreneur builds a powerful defense system that keeps unqualified outside voices at bay. That leader is somewhat self-assured, makes decisions, recognizes and corrects mistakes quickly, and listens to a few people who have proven to be reliable guides in their lives. They succeed in part because they do NOT listen to people.
There is more danger in listening to too many people than listening to too few of them, but here are a few suggestions about how to narrow down the list of voices in your head:
Content marketing died a long time ago–not too long after it made a big splash. The promise that we would move from an outbound world to an inbound one, where prospective clients would find your content and be drawn to working with you, was a wonderful premise. But as with many things marketing, it didn’t turn out to be quite that simple. And of course everyone got on the same bus.
The world is overrun with content. We need less content and more insight, and here’s the difference:
I’m getting more calls than usual from agency principals who are nervous about their businesses. It’s a combination of three things, it seems:
Those are the three external factors that are bringing some agencies back to their home bases where–truth be told–they are doing really good things:
I think the current agency leaders are the best leaders we’ve ever had.
I’ve written and spoken extensively about how half of your hires need to take your firm further from their very first day. The easy test for that is whether you can picture them teaching an agency-wide seminar where everyone soaks up some insight.
But you can go too far with that concept, leaping so many rungs on the ladder all at once that you lose your footing. I’m talking about hiring far out ahead of your supply lines, making that first big hire, stretching with the compensation package, hoping to be in the big leagues now. Here’s why it’s tricky to pull off: