Put the Employees First

David Ogilvy once said that all his agency’s assets went down the elevator at 5:00 p.m. We don’t know about the elevator or the hour, but we do know of the value of key agency employees. 

During most of the go-go ’80s and ’90s, it was corporate religion that the purpose of a business corporation was to satisfy the equity owners; stockholders, family owners, etc. The advent of the web in the mid 1990s fueled consumer empowerment, switching the emphasis to the customer. It was thought that happy customers brought forth happy owners.

Today, many experts now say, the most important success factor in an agency or business is the happy, empowered employee. The idea is that happy, empowered employees beget happy customers.

How do you achieve this, you ask? How do you remake your agency into one fully aligned with a 21st century ethic and mandate, and how do you extract maximum value from your employees?

Following are some points.

Core Values

We know you’ve heard a lot about developing an agency vision and mission statement. We’ve even expanded that to include developing an agency brand to create greater prospect interest. But a fine-tuned set of core values—those things you are willing to “die” for… non-negotiable principles that emanate from your core—need to be set down in writing and impressed upon your people. More critically, your people should help determine what those core values are. Their involvement will generate better buy-in and core value support throughout your agency. Finally, hire people who seem to fit your core values.

Don’t Be So Mechanistic

The great economists of the 20th century, such as Milton Friedman, seemed to look at business in a purely mechanistic or academic way. Things are made and sold, there are workers, there are customers, etc. It’s all very stilted and assembly-line oriented. That’s not what makes business… or life, for that matter. Both are far messier, and much more humanistic. To succeed at running a business today, you’ve got to be much more qualitative than quantitative. Consider that as you manage your agency, and you’ll be a far better manager. Any fool can read a book on how to run an agency. It takes a special person to handle the various requirements of clients, employees, vendors, freelancers, and families, and move forward to grow a successful business.

Teach Them to Astonish

Seek employees who have the potential to grow with you, then bond them to your agency through giving them opportunities to learn and stretch their skills. As they do this, encourage them to take creative risks. Empower them to serve the customer first and foremost. You must teach your employees not only to satisfy, but to astonish. The corollary of this in the brand space is to make your customers advocates of your products or services. The best thing you can do for your clients is to have agency employees who strive to go the extra mile each and every time.

Treasure Your Competitors

It sounds funny, but it works. John Mackey, the founder and CEO of Whole Foods, says he absolutely cherishes the people at Wegman’s, the Rochester, NY-based grocery store chain that is a major competitor.  “I learn so much from them each and every week. It makes us a much better company,” says Mackey. Hopefully, the folks at Wegman’s are appreciative. In case you aren’t familiar with the company, Wegman’s has made Fortune magazine’s “100 Best Companies to Work For” list every year since the magazine first began printing it. Look at your competitors, especially those who seem to snatch the best new hires, win the best clients, and take home the most creative awards. What are they doing that you ought to be doing? What can you do better?

Millennials Want to Work Hard AND Do Good

This speaks for itself. The character of the workforce is changing. These young, still-idealistic children of Gen-X—a.k.a., Gen-Y or echo-Boomers—want to work hard, but they also want to make sure the world becomes a better place. They have a slightly different value system: more holistic, more focused on balancing life and work; and they have high expectations for how their employers should behave. They ardently support social responsibility and will expect you to do the same. These workers will not allot every waking hour to the agency, but this does not negate the contribution they will make. Stress quality of work, rather than quantity of time spent at their desks. Train, mentor and develop future leaders. Don’t neglect older workers, however; it’s still a multi-generational workforce.

Help to Make Them Owners

This may sound a little like socialism to older, Boomer owners, but the idea that each employee should have a sense of ownership in the agency through equitable profit sharing and appropriate give-backs is tremendously important to today’s workers. Also, think less in terms of “career paths” and more about “opportunity paths”—i.e., opportunities to grow and learn new skills, or have a greater say in the agency’s big decisions. Stakeholder programs and “for the greater good” work are mandatory.


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