Two Unique Challenges About Running An Agency

At the end of this piece I'll share why I'm nervous to admit this, but for now let me just say that your job running an agency really is different than running another kind of firm. There are two reasons for that.

  1. You entered the field through the craft door. So your background is journalism, communications, design, marketing, advertising, etc. You learned to do a job, and then you built a business around yourself as a vehicle to make money with that skill. All of your training and most of your experience is in doing a certain function well--how to run a business is secondary. You were drawn to the field by the craft. Yes, some of you have learned to love the business portion, too, but most of you have not. You don't hop out of bed in the morning and get excited about feeding the machine, doing that employee review, developing a client conflict policy, or swapping a key client's contact person yet again. Reading a balance sheet isn't something you're excited to pass along to your kids. For a moment, consider the relative importance of being skilled at your craft versus making smart business decisions for your agency. And look around you at what's taken firms down within your orbit. What takes these firms down is bad business decisions, like out of control growth, patting a gorilla client on the head, piling on debt, ignoring marketing, etc. There's very little connection to creativity. Some of the most creative firms disappear and some of the least creative thrive from a business perspective. Yet we still train people in the craft but let them pick up the business skills they'll need here and there, as they are able. There are opportunities, here, for the large membership organizations that support the different portions of the marketing field.
  2. Our insular industry makes everyone a competitor that deserves a "guarded" approach. We shouldn't need consultants like me or the other dozen really capable ones out there. But the industry's "I can do everything for everyone" approach means that every agency is a competitor, and we're guarded about our successful business practices because we don't want to help a competitor. It's sad. The twenty or so independent industry groups that gather agencies could be more effective here, too. They keep selling themselves as this larger network to help agencies land business that requires a multinational presence, but clients don't buy that argument and there's little actual cooperation between members. Yesterday I talked with one who lists about fifty "worldwide affiliates," but in reality the agencies are mostly doing their own thing. Instead, there ought to be open, transparent dialogue in an open book environment where they learn from each others business successes and business failures. There's enormous value there and it would be sufficient to fill that "business competence" gap. Some of these groups could be even more helpful.

Okay, now for the open admission. I'm nervous even hinting that running an agency is different because some folks will interpret that as a license to do their own thing as if the laws of gravity don't apply. I'm not saying that we can't learn from each other--I am saying that we don't do that as much as we could.

Here's to better modeling of healthy business practices and more transparent sharing of what works and what doesn't work at our individual agencies.

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