You're Change Agents Masquerading as Agency Principals

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.

You don’t really open up to new ways of doing things until your own ways don’t work. And even then, breaking your habits will be difficult. As much as I’d like to, I cannot sit here and tell you otherwise. Fat old white men don’t exercise until they’ve had the heart attack.

There’s another reason why some changes (positioning, employees, clients, financial performance) are difficult for you. The successful entrepreneur builds a powerful defense system that keeps unqualified outside voices at bay. It’s hard to know what voices to listen to. I’ve written about that here recently.

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’m an author, speaker, and advisor, but being an advisor is the most difficult of those three. My initial challenge is to determine how badly someone is interested in change. Then I need to make a case for everything they know already but have dismissed for various reasons. Very few of us are willing to embark on deep change without a deep desperation about our current situation–equal to or greater than our inertia.

So no matter what it is that you wish would be different at your agency, the current dysfunction “works” for you in some way. There might be psychological reasons, or it just might be that you aren’t willing to kick the hornet’s nest.

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.

Your clients are peddling as fast and hard as they can and the last thing they need from you is a longer to do list. I think that’s why my clients don’t hire me more frequently: they still have undone items on the checklist from our last engagement. That’s probably true for you, too. Your job as a consultant to your clients is to:

  1. Humanize the recommendations because they’ll have to be applied in the real world.
  2. Simplify the recommendations so that they can have some early successes.
  3. Be champions for their cause.
  4. Speak the truth against that context, retaining any credibility you have by being the objective advisor they hate to love (not love to hate).

Just like I do, you should say this to your clients:

  1. Life is going to get a little bit worse before it gets a whole lot better.
  2. You’re not suddenly going to have a lot more time and money to solve this, so let’s spend that time and money in smart ways. (This is the argument for a diagnostic at the outset of your client relationships.)
  3. Our experience means that we’ll not likely see anything new in your situation, but we’ll see a fresh combination of your own dysfunction and it’ll be our job to guide you effectively.
  4. We won’t always be right, but we’ll always be honest. That means only doing things we’re good at, pointing you to other reliable guides when they are better than us, and giving you one aha moment after another.

Go forth and be honest with your clients. Remember that you’re really change agents masquerading as creative principals. Quit trying to hide behind making things and embrace your role in helping them think differently.

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