5 Reasons for Agency Decay

At a recent visit to the dentist, he started rattling off the reasons why I have some tooth decay. You know…what you eat, acidity levels, proper care, genetics – and that you’re old and so are your teeth.

It got me thinking about the analogy to the agency business, one I know well after a decade of building one. And more recently, I’ve had many conversations with agency leaders and friends about what’s happening and how they get their agency mojo back.

Here’s what I found.

5. Leadership Lethargy

For many agency founders and CEOs, the game wears you down. After five years, you get a little toasty. After 10, you start thinking about “lifestyle business vs. selling,” and beyond that, you just get plain old burnt out. The clients milk you to the bone, your staff turnover makes you hesitant to invest in anyone, and the cash-on-hand ebb and flow has caused too many sleepless nights.

You’re tired. And it’s OK.

You have a responsibility not to let that affect your company. But we also have to own that feeling and address it head on. And that doesn’t mean you need a vacation. Leadership MUST get out of the way of progress. When it’s time to hand over the reins to those itching for them, go for it. Or find someone that can help drive the energy level up and allow you to be the mentor vs. the boss.

Trust me, your team can see that you’re worn out. They feel it implicitly and it’s affecting every part of your organization.

4. Talent Talkathon

Everyone talks about it. We all bemoan it, yet rarely does an agency truly invest in its number one resource, talent. You’ll hear endless internal chatter about talent retention, acquisition, and building a great company culture. I swear the conversations are the same as they were 15 years ago, and little to nothing has changed. There are two options here: a) you just accept it as a part of doing business, manage the turnover, and maximize output per employee. Or b), you do something different. Toss “Lunch & Learns” OUT THE FREAKIN’ WINDOW! Stop having conversations with the team about their education budgets to use. Move beyond team-building events. Just cross it off the list once and for all. And then see what happens. You’ll probably end up asking, “Well, heck…what do we offer now? How do we build good culture, what do we really invest in to help our employees, and how is real loyalty built?”

The answers and new tactics will at least show everyone that you’re doing more than just another year of lip service about how important they are.

3. Deals You Want vs. Deals You Can Win

I have heard the phrase uttered so many times, it just makes me cringe when it comes up again. You know the one when someone says, “I really want this deal Bob, let’s figure out how to win it.” In many instances it’s like the one-legged hobbit saying he really wants the 7-foot Amazonian princess. He wants it but that is not reason enough to spend time on trying to get it. And even if he got it, don’t think he’d be able to handle her needs (yep, I went there for a little levity in a serious article!).

What needs to happen instead is a ruthless look at which deals you are most suited to win, and having every RFP, deal lead, and referral for new business go through the same objective analysis. Go get ‘er because you can win, not because you want to.

There is one exception: the relationship. If you have the relationship, that always trumps everything else. So be sure to spend more time building those and less time extolling how great an agency you are.

2. Playing the Game You’re In

One of the most common mistakes at agency level is trying too hard to differentiate. With your oh-so-clever five-step process, or that new tool you built…and so on and so on. If you are a great digital agency, then just be a great digital agency that has a specialty or two.

Think baseball. You can be a great baseball team known for its killer pitching rotation. But that’s it. You’re not inventing a new sport to define the industry, let alone client need. You’re not inventing any new rules to the sport and quite frankly, you’re not going to be setting any world records for your clients. You are going to give them the best chance to make the playoffs (i.e. see some great results) and possibly the World Series (exponential market share gains), but don’t cloud your positioning, thinking, or time trying to play any other sport than baseball.

Wasting your time on building technology (save a few rare cases), thinking of a new sexy way to position your offering, or just creating new value models (ex: pay for performance) won’t win the deals. Building relationships, playing the game better than the next guy, and helping the client see what it looks like to win with you – that’s what wins deals.

1. Spark Curiosity to Fan the Fire Within

Where agency work gets to be monotonous and uninspiring is when we lose interest in trying something new, or creating a new way of looking at the challenges we face. Most of that is because we are devoid of good material to stimulate that kind of new neuronal activity in the brain. Simply put, we need to gather new ideas, insights, and ways of thinking through learning. Do more of that curiosity-based learning you get when reading a good book, watching a good video, or even having a conversation with a new person.

This may well be the hardest thing to accommodate within the culture of a hard-driving, big hours, play hard/work hard agency. But I believe it is one of the most critical. Create and encourage an environment to learn. Explore new ideas. Offer outlets to gain new insights week in and week out and reward them, beyond the 15-hour day worker bee. It takes commitment at the senior level, and you’ll have to bake “learning” into your 360 reviews and talent rewards systems, which takes true commitment and belief from those that manage the teams. Just as with the Amazonian with the hobbit, this is not something you can fake.

Final Word

The battleground of the agency war is one that commands the highest level of respect. It is a challenge every day that requires new thinking, big energy commitments, and a big mother-load ton of patience and emotional intelligence to manage all the various individuals from client to talent, team members to bosses. It’s not easy and nothing I wrote above will make it any easier. Go forth knowing – it is a worthy battle to fight. The lessons here will serve well in agency business and in life as well.

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