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Ditch Your Daily Drama: 10 Best Practices Help Ad Agency Leaders Lead

Ditch Your Daily Drama: 10 Best Practices Help Ad Agency Leaders Lead


When you’re up to your ass in alligators, it’s hard to remember that your job was to drain the swamp.

- McDonald’s founder Ray Croc

Ad agency principals can sometimes be so deep in coping with daily chaos, they forget that others before them, and many who will come after—for that matter, plenty of his or her contemporaries—are dealing with the exact same issues in their daily business lives.  In other words, your personal drama is not unique.

Lots of agency owners are facing the same challenges—wrangling difficult clients, trying to keep an eye on cash flow and expenses, developing hot new business pitches, cramming as much work as possible through far-from-perfect workflow systems, and attempting to keep up morale and ensure your team are on their toes and maintaining good energy.

To agency principals everywhere: we feel your pain. But you can greatly reduce that portion of your pain that is self-inflicted.

Think Time

Suffering self-inflicted pain is the result of habits that prevent you from truly leading your agency. You cannot lead and also be just one of the guys. You must assume the role of leader by putting aside many of your other “hats,” and focusing on the few that will help your agency move forward… plus a few that you are just really good at.

While temporarily shifting your daily drama to a consultant or business coach is nice for the short-term, you can’t go to the mountaintop seeking wisdom and just stay there. At some point, you have to return from the mountaintop and get back into the daily business of living and working. To complicate matters, most agency principals never find a mountaintop to visit—their wisdom is earned from doing what they must for years.

That is why it is critical to make time to just sit and think, so you can figure out what you’ve learned and start passing that wisdom on to your top managers, the probable future leaders of the agency. You don’t become a sage overnight, nor can you share all you know in one quick download. Ed Catmull, a co-founder of Pixar, decided to give a series of small talks to the studio’s employees before he retired, to share insights and encouragement, as well as the perspectives of his many years in filmmaking—a sort of “farewell tour” plus mentoring process.

Ten More Things Great Leaders Do:

Delegate! Some portion of your daily challenges are in your lap because you resist delegating responsibilities to your valuable, highly skilled people.

Wouldn’t it be great if you could take a few days off, at short notice, and trust that the agency won’t run off the rails in your absence? Imagine taking two weeks or even a month to travel a little. Would the agency survive without you? If you have doubts, you are probably either too much “in the trenches” on a daily basis, or not really leading the agency. You should be working on your business, not in it.

Lead in account service. Agency leaders should not be doing daily account service, but they definitely need to stay involved in major accounts. This serves two purposes—you ensure clients know you are involved and care about their businesses, and you build and maintain higher-level contacts at the client company. This gives you the power and connections to step in should problems arise, or go over the heads of marketing or procurement to the C-suite. It also keeps account executives from developing their own little fiefdoms, and maybe walking away with the agency’s best accounts.

Be the agency’s best promoter. No one cares more about what your agency does and how great you are at doing it than you, the founder or owner. Turn that passion into as many opportunities to highlight your prowess as you can. Self-promotion is key to being known, seen, and attractive as a potential partner for new prospects and even current clients. Be the spokesperson and thought leader your agency needs.

Direct the new business effort. Agency owners should be involved in new business planning and pursuit, and be prepared to pitch or join the developer on meetings. The developer gets meetings, but you and/or your partner must step up to bring the business home. Leaders should oversee the developer’s efforts, direct hot pitches, and take leading roles in pitches.

Grow the agency’s culture. You can’t make great work all by yourself. At some point, you build a team of hard-working, enthusiastic individuals to help make work that inspires and boosts clients to their goals. To achieve that, your people need to be happy, enjoy balanced, interesting lives, and believe collectively in the agency’s mission and vision.  Focus on creating an organization where you all lean on one another, learn from each other, support the work, and salute the same flag.

Build trust through ethical behavior. Trust is the foundation of all thriving businesses. When your people trust your word, know they can rely on your support, and demonstrate the behaviors you model so responsibly, you have a team that you can trust to represent the agency you built. You also have a team that reliably does what you would do when they face difficult choices or ethical conundrums. That is worth its weight in creative awards.

MBWA and Listen. There is a reason managing by walking around (MBWA) has such staying power as a management best practice. It works. You don’t have to be in the trenches with the team, but you do need to be in regular communication with team members. Know their names and situations, their interests and issues. Listen to problems and work to help find solutions that enable the team to achieve new heights. Understand where your team is coming from, and guide them to their destinations.

Share your passion and vision. If your people aren’t excited about the work or the agency’s goals, you must set the tone. You want a team with energy and enthusiasm, and that does not sustain itself. Be the booster if people get a little low; whip up excitement for new business pitches or client activities; spread your own passion around so everyone else catches it.

Don’t neglect the business side. Not every agency owner loves the nitty-gritty of financial management. But make time to check the agency’s financial reports monthly, or sit with your partner(s) to review reports and make planning adjustments. Strong oversight is the best method for ensuring your cash flow is good, your overhead is in line, and your profits are trending ever upward.

Develop and use a business plan. The wonderful thing about a business plan is that it helps you make tough decisions that will always steer you toward your goals. A sound plan also helps your team focus on key performance indicators in reaching those goals. A plan breaks down big hairy goals into manageable, attainable chunks, helping everyone keep up enthusiasm for pressing onward.

Focus on What You Do Best and Love Doing

What is the ultimate benefit to letting go of some responsibilities and trusting your team? You get more time to spend on important stuff, or even on doing the things you most love about the creative ad agency business. What are you best at? Wouldn’t you enjoy having more time to think about and do those things you excel at, and find most rewarding? No one can do everything, all the time, non-stop. You need to focus on the things you like to do, need to do, or do so well the agency needs you to do them.

By letting go of many everyday, in-the-trenches responsibilities, you can focus your efforts where they will most benefit the agency and your entire team. As a bonus, that focus will also reduce a good portion of the distracting, debilitating, daily drama that all agency principals face as their agencies grow.

Ditch the drama. No one wins awards or achieves success for being a drama queen except actual drama queens. You should be the director of your day and your agency. Promote your employee “stars” into larger roles, and concentrate on guiding the big picture. 

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