Pulling it all Together to Define your Firm’s Foundational Model

If you are a new agency entity, your foundation building is going to be a lot simpler than changing an existing agency’s model. 

Building something new or from scratch can also be pretty similar, the one constant you both have are your people.  What may be different is how set everyone is in their old ways of working and a willingness to do something different. For management, we know that we need to have a business plan and some strategic idea of where we want to go.

Our first step is to develop the core agency story, so that everyone in the agency has a shared mental image of the company’s reason for existing. We know it has to have both a business reason, and a heart felt reason for being that addresses where the company path will be heading.

It’s not enough to simply strive for a larger client or being the best; that’s not what makes your agency different or special. Your staff could care less if your goal is to make more money, they know that benefit may never reach them.

We talk a lot about what value your agency can bring to the table and to your clients. You are not unique in having a position that talks about passion, and a will to be different. But, if you can get your employees to proudly share your story, and to believe in it, then that is what is different about your company.

If they can explain it, be excited about it, and share you story, then all of your thinking and effort around identifying who you are has been worth it.

One of my favorite quotes states that, 

“Advertising isn’t dead. What’s dead is an agency process
whose only outcome can be advertising.”

If you can’t or are unwilling to look at how you can change your process, culture and the talent you seek, then you will remain static, and what your agency can do or is capable of will remain short of its potential. I’m not asking you to reinvent the wheel. A large part of this book is dedicated to what makes a good team manager and teams in your agency, and those basics are sound management techniques you can apply to any process your agency chooses to follow in the end.

With any organization model that is geared towards creativity, we know that there are just some common truths that have helped them get to where they are now.

  • Stay flat as possible, as long as possible. 
  • When people work as a team, they form as a family. 
  • When someone is done with their part, and they pass the work to their team mate, they are in charge of what to do with it next.
  • No silos.
  • Inspiration and creativity is everywhere.
  • Innovation is not a process it is the end result.
  • People are not roles, they are more valuable to you then a
  • job description.
  • Holding on to old beliefs, is a bunch of bullshit.
  • Old beliefs prevent new learning.
  • It’s ok to be weird.
  • It’s ok for people and you to be who you are.
  • Everyone is re-learning how to make stuff.
  • What have we learned in these past few years?
  • Experimentation is more important that knowing what to do.
  • Complexity means getting rid of consolidation, and that teams gets better solutions, faster.
  • Cooperation means giving up layers of control, to build community.
  • We can’t always craft everything like we use to, the work we do it too fragmented.

Here’s the thing. Many agencies live with flawed structures. They struggle, and they struggle hard. The results of a bad agency setup can make you stay up all night, your team is over capacity — all the time, and your cash flow seems to only cover enough to make payroll and the rent half the time.

Your team is tired, all the time, and you are tired as well. It’s time to be proactive and start applying some big thinking to your agency, beyond setting culture, missions and values.

The first is, start firing clients that don’t fit your vision, where you can’t make a profit, and they are a bad cultural fit. Stop it. Once you figure out where you want to be and who you want to be, only work with those clients.

The second thing is, your going to have to align your people with your culture, and the realities of what you are going to do move forward. There is no easy way to say this, but you are going to have fire people. It’s going to be hard to do, but once you’ve let go of some of you bad clients, your going to have to shrink your team to match. Take advantage of the situation, but making decisions that begin to flatten out your hierarchy. 

Once you’ve cut, clients and staff, as you grow forward into new territory, stay focused on your goals. What type of people do you need to grow your agency, and what clients are you now going to go after that make sense from a higher revenue and creativity factor.

Often, we need to look at the team as a whole and really evaluate the strengths of our people. Do they have what it takes to move us forward? These are very hard decisions to make, some of the people that you may have worked with for a very long time become like family. However, sometimes we need to divorce ourselves in order to make a real difference in our lives. It hurts for a while, but in the end, you know you needed to make the change in order to grow.

Don’t think of structure as an organization chart with lines and boxes that reveals hierarchy and reporting relationships. Think of structure as the manifestation of your business model.  Having the right structure means you have the right competencies to meet the needs of your business model.

Now is the time to determine if there are other individuals that you can add to your staff that may get you closer to your goals. I try and focus small agencies to concentrate on building a team that is going to move them forward in the areas of business they may want to work in. That may mean rounding out your new business team, adding strategic capabilities or even a new operational role that will allow you the time to concentrate on growing the business and having a partner that can implement change.

Defining your agency model can be overwhelming, but I often recommend keeping things lo-fi. Prototype on big sheets of paper what your agency can look like, and what process you think will work best for your team. Use this book to think about all the ways you can manage process within your agency to create a process that works for you.

Keep things simple, shoot for agility over process in your agency model.

As agencies mature, and get larger the services that can provide to a potential client and the level of service they can provide changes.

It can be hard to define agencies now solely by what they provide as services, I also think its human nature to not want to feel boxed in. Mentally, we are also always looking to our future vision of what we want to be instead of where we are now.

I think its okay not to follow the same path as everyone else, technology is changing rapidly, and everyday I think there are new opportunities that can take us in completely different paths, creating new ways to think about what is a creative firm.

What exists out there now is helpful to look at, if only to examine how they do what they do. From a human resources aspect, we can look at a specific agency type to help determine the type of people we may want to have in our own agency. 

What a producer, creative person, or leader does at Razorfish is going to be different than at CP+B or at Frog. The way the work and who they work with and their job descriptions are going to be very different.

Would you hire a CIO or CDO or CTO?

Who would you hire to lead Strategy?

Would you hire a Director of Partnerships?

Would you hire an ECD or a Director of Design, or both?

What internal production services would you have?

To what level would you work with data or analytics?

What you want to make your own products or IP?

Would you physical want to make things in-house?

Would you hire a CMO or EP?

These are just some of the thoughts and questions to ask yourself as you move forward — each decision you make from a staffing standpoint will pivot your culture, your agency focus and the processes you employ.

While culture is only one of the factors that define a company, it is one of the strongest ones. Culture is about playing to your agency’s strengths as much as it is to letting people (inside and out) know what you do and believe in. In a world in which it can be hard to differentiate yourself from other similar firms, your values and culture can help set you apart.

As agency leaders, don’t over look the importance of how important these values can have in shaping your firm. Your agency is primarily made up of creative professionals, who often strongly identify themselves with a set of their own values. It’s this correlation that is going to attract talent and keep talent in your agency as you continue to grow.