We should all have such a problem, right? Yet it is not unusual for Second Wind to hear from ad agencies struggling to manage the demands of a booming business environment. That’s the agency business—feast or famine.
How do you keep from spinning into chaos when you suddenly have more business than it seems you can handle? When you are dealing with too much business and not enough people, or sudden increases in staff blowing your overhead through the roof, or trying to balance new investment against profits, the daily demands can be overwhelming. After 30 years of watching and working with agencies across the continent, we’ve learned the trick to handling the feast times: work your business plan.
How does working the plan help with the chaos of uncontrolled growth?
If you have a business plan—and every agency needs one—you already have certain goals and objectives, a budget, and an idea of the people and equipment you need to execute that plan. This means when new opportunities arise, like a big new account, or a flurry of smaller accounts that demand changes to your people and daily operations, you can check those opportunities against your established plan.
Two things occur when you reference your plan: you either decide the opportunity is not a good fit to help you reach your goals; or, you decide to alter your goals to accommodate the new opportunity. Either way, you are basing the decision on planned growth, rather than just grabbing every brass ring that comes your way and figuring out what adjustments are needed after the fact.
“We can’t afford to pass up any opportunities!” you cry. “If we let one slip away, we may never get another shot.” That’s a dangerous attitude if you hope to stay in business for the long-term. Instead of this sort of reactive thinking, agencies need to adopt proactivethinking, especially with regard to new business and account growth. Proactive planning requires that every aspect of growth be the result of careful consideration. Not every new account is the right account for your agency; not every strategic opportunity is truly valuable to the agency’s long-term stability and profitability.
Proactive planning helps prevent chaos.
When you get a new opportunity, weigh it against the following:
- Your stated goals/objectives
- Agency values alignment
- Staffing/equipment needs
- Ability to deliver on client demands
- Profit opportunity
- Cost analysis—can you afford it?
- Risk vs. potential gain
Discuss the opportunity among your partners and/or key managers and decide if the scale tips to or away from taking the account. If you decide the brass ring is worth grabbing, ask what adjustments you will need to make to your plan and budget. Need to hire more people? Start looking as soon as you decide you want the business. (Make sure you actually have the business before you hire!) Need build specific skills? Find strategic partners to strengthen those knowledge areas. Kick your research and planning activities into high gear so your people can dive deep into the new client’s world.
What if the new business is not a good fit for your existing plan… but you’d really like to take it because the money is very good, and you’ll accrue other benefits like enhanced reputation and valuable connections? Reassess your plan. If all parties to your planning review agree the opportunity requires a change to the business plan, figure out how that will shift your focus and what adjustments you’ll have to make to the plan. Above all, have a plan!
Help! Our middle name is already Chaos!
What if you skipped past plan assessment and are in the midst of a chaotic growth boom? The only way to rein in chaos is to grab the reins with both hands, pull back hard and hold tight.
Sit down and make a plan. The hours you dedicate to getting a handle on where you are and where you hope to end up will pay back to your agency in spades. Enlist your entire staff to assess where your pain points are occurring—personnel/HR issues? Equipment and technology? Office space? Skill gaps? Distracted managers? Pick the most critical areas to focus on first, and assign individual employees to work on trouble areas. Do weekly check-ins to assess progress. As you get a handle on one issue, assign people to work on the next most critical problems.
As your team works together to rein in the chaos of uncontrolled growth, they will feel more empowered to deal with problems that arise. They’ll identify smaller issues that can be fixed before they become big issues. The team will depend less on you and your managers, and contain chaos into a manageable daily routine. Best of all, you’ll have a plan you can lean on to keep chaos from returning.
Remember, your role as a leader is to LEAD.
Agency leaders must manage the plan. Get out of the trenches as much as possible and command the operation. If you are part of the chaos, you’ll never be able to regain control. Review financial statements regularly and keep an eye on profits and account relationships. A growth trend can reverse all too quickly if you lose accounts because you are running so fast to get up to speed on new clients. Remember—be a helicopter pilot. Better yet, be air traffic control, and make your managers helicopter pilots. Once the chaos is back to manageable levels, you can step selectively back into those daily roles where the agency owner can and should take part.
Growth is fabulous, but growing to a plan is even better. Not every agency owner is naturally good at planning. But you can learn to plan… and then, work the plan. Then you can watch chaos recede in your rearview mirror, and enjoy the road ahead.