Confessions Of An Agency Guy

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Alternative Title: A Beer Fridge Does Not Make A Culture

Spend a decade in any industry and you’ll have plenty of “it ain’t what it seems” tales to share. It’s not #haterade, it’s measured perspective. Reflections with the intent to inform. Me? I recently concluded a successful ten-year gig at a “lifestyle marketing” agency and figured I’d brain dump some lessons, warnings, and suggestions here.

Work / Life balance is the responsibility of employees. Agencies are known for throwing this term around better than most work environments. Any client service job comes with its set of stressful demands, and agencies tend to do a good job of building fun into the framework of daily office life. But the role of the agency is to define what “work / life balance” means, while the worker needs to make that shit happen. Telling me I can take summer Fridays as half-days and that nobody is a clock watcher doesn’t hold much water if I don’t force the issue by taking time off to enjoy my life. Trust me, the principals and presidents aren’t going to kick you out of your desk to stop client work because it’s sunny out.

Agencies have scaling problems, too. I was lucky enough to be a part of a team that grew from about 30 people in one office to 150+ in several offices. The biggest mistake leaders can make is underestimating the difference in your ability to create and manage a culture at these different phases of growth. With 30 workers, one or two influencers can drive the entire culture of the organization. But when you grow and spread and the markets change, you need to respect the fact that your culture won’t simply scale up accordingly. What you did in the first 6 months won’t translate to Year 5.

There’s talking and there’s doing. This is probably pretty specific to marketing / creative agencies, but goddamn there needs to be accountability beyond just words. I’ve seen hundreds of thousands of dollars spent simply because an industry veteran waxed poetic on a topic and the clients bought into it with little to no sensible questioning. I’ve witnessed years of man hours spent with absolutely no meaningful measurement in place. Yet these decisions continue to get made, and at pretty high levels.

The likes and dislikes of the upper brass drive pretty much everything.We had a VP account manager who was enamored with one specific idea (more like a tactic). He pitched it several times and in different ways to the client throughout a three-year period, allocating our team resources to research and development throughout. We all knew the client wasn’t into it, but the VP loved it so it became a focal point. Within a week of that VP leaving the agency, the new VP-in-charge directed us to never EVER mention that concept again.

There’s a significant difference between being client managers and innovative strategy leaders. Pay close to attention to how you structure your team, what behaviors you emphasize, and the way you onboard clients. If you’re not deliberate about your intentions, you can quickly end up a reactive group, spending more time and energy bouncing from client demand to client demand instead of informing and driving growth decisions.

The hours — they’re a crapshoot. It may all even out in the end, but it’s pretty damn scary how those hourly spreadsheets get filled out.

Operating successfully as an agency who’s been acquired calls for a specific skill set. I’ve seen an acquisition — even one that doesn’t involve office moves and team merges — set an agency back years in terms of progress. All of a sudden you have a parent watching your moves. Bloated revenue projections, significant decisions influenced by the fact that the Eye In The Sky is always watching, and a fragmented work force that never quite understands the value (or structure) of the relationship.

About that beer fridge. It’s pretty cool. So is the pop-a-shot table, the happy hours, the lax dress code, the summer outings (i.e. Drunk Hook-Up Fest), and the staff lunches. But those aren’t culture. Those are nice-to-haves, things that make the good days great and the great days awesome. But they don’t make the bad days good. Please, please, please don’t rely on those kinds of things.

The constant need to justify your existence grows tiring. It’s a necessity of the game, but it just sucks. I’ve been a part of countless meetings that begin by pulling out the current scope of work, identifying the fees we haven’t yet captured, and then backwards engineering work to justify those fees. “Let’s write a 50-page competitive analysis deck for them!” is a direction I’ve received far too often. It’s become an accepted practice, but a soul-destroying one at that. Everyone wants to create shit that matters.

Is it billable? There remains a constant fear of doing anything not directly accountable to client hours, at least in my experience. Innovation cannot be a complete slave to your P&L statement. It’s as simple as that.

RFPs should not be celebrated. Being invited to participate in an RFP is the trophy of a backwards organization. For the longest time I bought into the RFP game, with the excitement of dropping everything at a moment’s notice to step into the ring. But once that wears off, you see the process for what it really is: It upsets the entire order of the agency for a week or two, forces top minds to spend nights and weekends in a conference room, and requires the burning of thousands and thousands of dollars in hours and expenses. This is all for the pleasure of being one of dozens competing for who-even-knows-what, then getting grilled by procurement who is clearly looking for the lowest priced option, and all in a ridiculous timeline. I recently had dinner with another agency founder and he noted they NEVER respond to RFPs. I immediately thought that should be the goal of every agency.

My days as an agency hack were mostly fruitful, and I will forever be better for the experience. Everything can be better, and maybe someone will take this list as a starting point when building their own shop.

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