Ad agencies, like many other kinds of businesses, hire consultants to audit their procedures, practices and cultures, and make recommendations. But quite often, they don’t like what their consultants tell them.
Ad agency principals will call in consultants because they either feel they have a specific problem and want outside advice on how to mend it; or because they sense a need to improve productivity and efficiency, but don’t know how to achieve that aim. Agency principals sometimes believe that they are so attuned to their business and team, there is little that needs to be pointed out to them, and very little that could use adjustment, let alone a more radical fix. They expect verification of their personal assessment. They believe that there are no invisible issues that could be exposed. So it can be earth-shaking to learn that their little ad agency paradise doesn’t look or behave like paradise for employees. And that is when denial sets in.
The deeply personal act of creating and building a business makes principals very defensive about how that business operates, its culture and the perceptions others hold about the firm. So when an objective outsider comes in and points out problems they either knew about and ignored, or were blind to, it can stir principals’ ire more than their surprise. Critiques are so much easier to give than to receive. When that critique is applied to “your baby,” it can be painful enough that principals push back.
Protectionism and Denial
Push-back takes several forms. The first is outright denial through disagreement with the consultant’s findings. “Well, that’s just wrong!” a principal exclaimed when a consultant told him employees felt the agency vibe was chaotic and financial management was of the fly-by-the-seat-of-our-pants variety. The principal quickly found rational arguments for ending the consulting relationship, and even dragged out payment of the consultant’s invoice. Employees who were outspoken about issues decided they could find a better environment elsewhere and started job-hunting; others quietly made plans to do the same, or took advantage of others’ exits. Either way, the result was toxic to culture and employee-employer trust.
Another form of push-back is passive-aggressive. We saw one agency’s leadership accept their consultant’s findings and recommendations… and then fail to act on any of them. It was as if the consultant relationship never happened. Employees anticipated change, realized it wasn’t going to happen, shared irritated discussions in the break room or parking lot, and silently went back to their daily struggles. With reduced confidence in their leaders, some employees left, but those who stayed were less engaged in the agency’s mission and goals, since they saw leadership as ineffectual and their own views as essentially silenced.
Another result of unsettling consultant findings is the agency principal who is shocked, but willing to try to apply recommendations. It is not unusual for this type of leader to start out with good intentions—setting goals, assigning champions, sharing action item spreadsheets—only to let it all slide as time marches on. Champions decide they’ve been suckered into believing change was the goal; other employees see the champions abandoning the process. The leader falls back into their previous routine, and forgets about the entire report, rationalizing the choices they’ve made. Again, trust erosion and employee departures are inevitable side effects.
With so many possible negative outcomes, why even call a consultant?
The Right Mindset for Accepting Advice
We salute those rare few agency principals who not only embrace their consultants’ findings, but develop solid plans for acting on their recommendations, and promote change by and for their employees. These agencies also tend to have strong cultures and positive attitudes… and the right leadership to push the agency, and its people, forward.
If you invite a consultant to audit your agency and advise you on areas that may need to be adjusted, be prepared.
Knowledge is power. Brace yourself to hear unpleasant results among the positive news, and to act to fix those things that need fixing.
Don’t shoot the messenger. Remember that the consultant’s job is to spot things you can’t (or won’t see) and bring them to your attention.
Change is good. Commit to change as a positive for your business. That means that, painful as it may be to hear criticism of your baby, changes made now could prevent big problems in the future.
You aren’t in this alone. Yes, you may be the founder. But you have surrounded yourself with smart, creative people who want the business to succeed, maybe even more than you do, since their jobs depend on that success. Implementing consultant recommendations and leading change can empower the next generation of agency leaders. Embrace the opportunity to let go of some daily responsibilities and trust employees to lead.
Take baby steps. You don’t have to change everything at once. With the help of your consultants and key employees, identify priorities. Then assign leaders to pursue the changes you agree upon. Have frequent check-ins to track progress, and keep employees informed. As each change is accepted, you can add more assignments. This baby-step approach also helps change-resistant employees adapt to and accept changes. And it shows you are willing to make changes.
Just breathe. As awful as it may feel at first to be told your baby is imperfect, know that perfection is a goal, not a state of being. There is always room to improve, and always will be. Criticism is neither an insult to nor a death-sentence for your agency—it is a reminder that you can always do better. More accurately, WE can always do better—you’re a team, not working in isolation.
Are Consultants Always Right?
Of course, consultants are not always right. But it pays to listen and learn when an outsider offers a different perspective. Wherever you feel the advice you receive is wrong, or just off-track, give that advice extra careful thought. Sleep on it. Look at what the consultant saw that made them offer the assessment in question. Include your partners or key employees in the discussion, be open to persuasion if you prove to be the sole dissenting voice. If you still disagree with the recommendations, conduct a rational debate to see if you can mutually arrive at a solution that feels better to you. It is still your baby, so you get to make the final call.
Like parents who must let go as their child grows up, an agency owner should prepare for the day when their goals may no longer be the best guide for the agency’s direction. You want your business to live on; that means new leaders will have to be handed the reins at some point. If you are at the stage of needing outside consulting advice to move forward, it may also be time to begin stepping back from some aspects of daily leadership in the business. As you cede responsibilities, you also surrender some power to be the sole navigator for the agency’s course. Do this intentionally and you will come away a richer and wiser person, and your people will hold you in esteem as the standard to emulate.
Consultants are not always right, but their advice and recommendations can help you solidify ideas and set new goals that will keep you moving onward and upward.