The Perfect Complement: Finding the Right Partner Is About Balance

Advertising agencies are usually fun places to work. They are often non-corporate (some extremely so), frequently playful, and brim-full of interesting, eccentric personalities. Some of those eccentrics are, as happens in our world, also the agency owners. And while that eccentricity can be made to work for the agency—in branding, creative reputation and even client relationships—it can also be detrimental to developing a strong agency leadership where one or more partners assume management roles.

We recently featured a detailed article about selecting the right partner to share agency ownership or management. But I want to speak specifically about three areas where partners can suffer division and disunity: role/responsibility, ego and personality. These three factors can intermingle and combust in nasty ways… unless you can strike the right balance.

You Take the High Road…

…And I’ll take the low road, as the old song goes. When partners divvy up responsibilities, it is critical to suit skills to focus areas. The roles you assume can’t be only those you most prefer or “like.” Each partner must inevitably perform some duties they would much rather not handle, just because you have a business to run. Someone must manage human resources, oversee financial operations and make collection calls when the client is stalling on payments. The trick is to split the “ugly” portions of agency management so no single partner has to deal with all of the more tedious chores. Nothing causes more resentment and partner friction than an inequitable split of responsibilities, where one partner gets all the fun stuff and the other the teeth-grinding tasks.

Ideally, determine at the start of a partnership who will assume certain roles or duties. In a well-balanced partnership, partners alert to helping one another when issues arise may even be able to trade off the more burdensome chores of management just to give one another a break. But assigning roles ensures that someone will be responsible for the ongoing needs of the agency. Some of the best partnerships we have seen involve a strong creative leader and a financial/operations guru. But two creatives attuned to agency values and each others’ needs can also make exceptional teams.

A Star on the Door

Let’s face it: the agency business has a lot of primo uomos and prima donnas. We’re a creative industry, and egos abound. But partners’ egos can create clashes that disrupt and even break down agency culture, harming not just the partner relationship, but the entire agency (including employees, clients and vendors).

This is why it is so important to suss out partner egos before signing the papers that legally bind you. Meet a lot; talk frequently. Also ask other people for insights about your potential partner. Try to spend some time working with your partner on a trial basis. Sometimes, the egotistical side of a person’s character is not revealed until you see them day after day in an agency environment.

Again, balance is critical. If one partner loves the limelight and the other is fine with working behind the scenes taking satisfaction from accomplishments rather than recognition, great for you! But if one claims credit and the other craves it but doesn’t receive it, kiss the partnership goodbye. Chaining two rampant egos together may make for interesting creative work, but seldom means a healthy partnership.

Mr. or Ms. Personality

We all know “alphas” are the dominant members of a pack or herd. “Betas” are second in command, supporting the alpha and often next in line if the alpha is removed. “Omegas” are the bottom of the pecking order, the scapegoats and outliers. But “pack law” translates poorly to agency partnerships.

Instead of pack dynamics, concentrate on finding good personality matches. One can be the convivial extrovert, the other the more reserved and thoughtful introvert. One is creative and imaginative, the other a down-to-earth pragmatist. Or, one partner is results-focused while the other is the clever strategist. When partner traits are in counterpoint, you achieve a comfortable temperamental balance, where each partner can assist, support and complement the other.

You can gain some idea of personality and operational style by seeing how a prospective partner behaves in his/her business environment. How do they manage and relate to people? Are they rude and brusque with employees, or good listeners and thoughtful leaders? Are they self-promoters, or do they share recognition and push others into the spotlight? Are the values of the prospect’s agency similar to your own? In lieu of, or in addition to, seeing a person at work, make sure each partner takes a personality test as part of pre-contract assessment. If results indicate a potential clash in style or temperament, steer clear.  

Finding the right balance can mean the difference between agency partnership success and miserable failure. Work to find a partner who balances your own strengths, skills and temperament, and you’ll go together like pretzels and ice cream, Bert & Ernie, yin and yang… the perfect complement.

You’re the cream in my coffee,

You’re the salt in my stew,

You will always be my necessity,

I’d be lost without you.

B.G. DeSylva, Lew Brown and Ray Henderson