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15 Creative Agency Leaders Dish the Dirt on Success Secrets

Maybe you've been working in an agency for a while and are ready to start out on your own, or perhaps you read our article on starting your own agency and are ready to take the plunge, or perhaps you're already an agency leader looking for inspiration. You're dedicated, motivated and inspired to make your shop the best agency in the business!

Wouldn't it be amazing if you could sit down in a room with 15 seasoned agency leaders and pick their brains about what has and hasn't worked in their shops. Wouldn't that be the most amazing tool to grow your agency?

Well, we can't get 15 busy people into a room together, but we can do the next best thing. We asked 15 top agency leaders for their advice and insight into the business: what are the biggest lessons they've learned over their decades in the industry? What did they wish they'd known when they were starting out? Their answers – and the lessons you can learn from them – might surprise you:

Lesson #1: Form Partnerships with Agency Clients


ali_bio_1 Ali Lego, VP Marketing Services at COHN.

“Successful client relationships are really more like partnerships than anything else, and are built on a foundation of mutual respect, trust and transparency instead of being strictly transactional. When agency teams are engrained in the client's business, they gain a deeper understanding of the client’s goals and what motivates them. In turn, clients are more likely to embrace the creative process and trust the agency’s recommendations. Only then can we effectively propose solutions that will drive them forward.”

Ali Lego is VP Marketing Services at COHN, a full-service marketing agency based in Denver, Colorado. Connect with Ali on twitter at @cohnmarketing

Clients are both the source of an agency's success and the bane of your existence. Your clients have expectations and goals for their campaigns, and sometimes they have firm ideas about what they want from you that aren't actually the best for their business. By forming a trusting, lasting relationship with your clients, you're able to understand what they want on an intimate level and can not only meet their expectations, but exceed them.

Like all the relationships in our lives, our client relationships should be based on mutual trust and respect. Start by choosing clients that have a solid basis for a long-term relationship – a fantastic product or brand, a vision for their future you can get excited about, and values and ethics that align with your own. And, of course, it helps if they are awesome people and have the enthusiasm and capital to see their vision through.

But once you've found one of these companies to work with, how do you create a successful relationship between the agency and client?

  • Have a single point-of-contact – the client doesn't want to talk to ten different people at your agency about their job. Get one person at the agency to form the relationship.
  • Ask questions – a good agency listens more than they talk. Ask the right questions and help your client to come to their own conclusions.
  • Be a useful resource – an informed client is a dedicated client. Take the time to explain to your client exactly why you choose a particular design or campaign, and offer value through educational tools and tips.
  • Think beyond "projects" and "clients" – a client isn't just a revenue stream. Good agencies grow with their clients, working together to improve each other their businesses. Contact your clients with referrals, check in to see how they're going, and suggest new ideas and concepts for the future.
  • Reward loyal clients – for those clients who have worked with you on several projects and/or referred you to new business, establish some kind of reward strategy, whether it's a yearly client event, award ceremony, nice gift, or a discount on services.

Lesson #2: Only Take On Work You Believe In


aimee-single2 Aimee Yoon, co-founder of Dotted Line Communications.

"Looking back, one of the things I wished I knew earlier on was the importance of taking on projects/clients/launches that you truly believe can be successful. It is always hard to say no to a project from an ex-client (or worse - a friend!), or one with a small budget. And over the years this is something my business partner and I have become much better about: only taking on business we believe in. My advice is to stay true to your instincts and what you really think is going to be a great client/project and tell the truth when you communicate back around why you may not want to pursue something. The truth shall set you free."

Aimee Yoon is a co-founder of Dotted Line Communications, a boutique firm serving innovative businesses with smart PR. Connect with Aimee on twitter at @dottedlinecomm.

Learning to say no is an important part of doing business. Sometimes clients will come to you with project that you "could" do, but for whatever reason aren't your ideal job. It can be tempting to take on these clients, especially when cashflow is tight, but the important thing to remember is that every off-target client you take on takes time away from finding and working with your ideal clients. The quality, not quantity, of client work should be your top priority.

And inevitably, it's these "not-quite-right" clients who end up being the most demanding, take up the most time and cause the most headaches. Trust me when I say you'd be better off without them!

In our article 10-Step Blueprint to Identifying the Right Client For Your Agency, I list ten questions you should ask yourself about a potential client before taking them on. One of the most important of these questions is "can you solve their problem?" Not all agencies are a good fit for all clients – take an honest look at the brief and, as Aimee says, trust your instincts on whether or not you can deliver the best results for this client. If the answer is no, then refer them to someone who can.

So when should you say no to a potential client?

  • When they don't value your expertise – sometimes you get a client who believes he or she knows best. They've already drawn up a concept of exactly what's going to go where and are bossing your creative team around.
  • When the work is for free or low pay and doesn't offer any other kind of reward – For example, many agencies will do free work for charities, which has its own rewards, but won't do free work for the founder's brother's wife's dog walking company.
  • When they want you to do something you find ethically or morally ambiguous – this could be something as simple as a men's clothing campaign with a humorous message that you feel is too misogynistic, or a political campaign for a candidate you disagree with. If you'd feel awkward or embarrassed presenting this client's work in your portfolio, then you aren't the right agency for the job.
  • When their work just isn't a good fit – sometimes it's not the client themselves, but the project, that isn't going to work. With so many different types of agencies around, clients often get confused about the services they actually need. Maybe you're a branding agency but what the client really needs is help with SEO and social media. In which case, let them know it's not quite the right fit and refer them on to someone in the correct field. They'll appreciate your honesty and they might even come back to you in the future.
  • When they are a friend or relative expecting a discount – if their business is commissioning you and their product is a good fit, that's one thing, but too many people try to take advantage of services offered by friends. They often have unrealistic expectation of what advantages their friendship will afford them. You can seriously damage personal relationships if they aren't getting what they wanted out of your agency. My experience is – never work with friends or family unless they are willing to come on as a full client. It is all or nothing.

Lesson #3: The Art of Delegation


avwadeSMALL Vanessa Wade, founder and CEO of Connect the Dots PR.

"Most of us have heard if you want something done right, you have to do it yourself. Not so in agency life. As fun as running an agency is you depend on others to help you gain and retain clients and manage the day-to-day business. You have to make sure you balance time with your professional and personal life and you have to learn how to be resourceful. Those are things I underestimated starting out- but I have a wonderful team that helps me and I help them. In all you must be open to balance and find ways to make things work!"

Vanessa Wade is the founder and CEO of Connect the Dots PR, a PR, media relations and social media marketing agency based in Houston, Texas. Connect with Vanessa on twitter at @prockstar.

Many agency founders begin as freelancers or contractors for other companies. You are used to doing things on your own, from finding clients to completing the work to doing your accounts and running your own PR and marketing campaigns. Over the years you have built up your own systems and ways of doing things.

However, when you start an agency, you can bring in other people to do some of these jobs. Being able to delegate work to other employees of contractors is part of the benefit of the agency model. So take advantage of it!

Have you ever heard the phrase, "A Jack of all trades, but master of none?" Most freelancers have to be Jacks – there's only one of you, and all the stuff has to be done. But in order to run an efficient agency, every person you work with should focus on doing what they do best, so that you can focus on what YOU do best.

Here are some tips to learn how to delegate:

  • Learn how your team communicate – effective delegation begins with effective communication. Study how each member of your team communicates, and change your message and style depending on what works best. For example, some people need detailed written instructions, while others prefer to learn as they go.
  • Set clear goals – when delegating tasks to my team, I like to give them 1-2 clear goals for each project. This could be a timeframe, or a strategic or business goal. Having a goal in mind helps them to understand what they are working towards.
  • Use technology – a workflow management system like WorkflowMax will help you to quickly and effectively delegate tasks to your team, wherever they may be and whatever device they are using.
  • Leave space for questions – make it clear that you're free at any
  • Ask for advice – instead of telling your team what you want them to do, explain the task that has to be done and ask for their advice. You never know who might have a suggestion for an alternative method.
  • Avoid micromanagement – remember that a good leader empowers those around them to take initiative and take an active role in the success of the company.
  • Keep perspective – remind yourself what is really important. Sometimes as business owners we get a skewed idea of what is necessary for the day-to-day running of our agency and what is just work for work's sake. For example, is it more important that something is done in the next hour, or that the task is done to the highest quality possible? Don't put pressure on when it isn't needed.
  • Offer praise – when someone does a good job, tell them!

Lesson #4: Protect Your Culture


Screen shot 2013-11-27 at 1.05.05 PM Brian Easter, CEO of Nebo

"The greatest thing we've learned in our existence is that it's important to protect your culture. You have to go to bat for the people who work for you day in and day out, be brutally honest and do some things that might even scare you, because in the end, by protecting them, you secure your own future. You can't be afraid to fire clients. Even the big ones ... You have to resist the hire and fire culture of agency life, respecting people and structuring your business in a way that can account for feast and famine, and not expect your team to feel that it's a privilege to work at an agency and to roll with the punches.

"As a company grows, it's easy to lose your culture. Some say its part of
maturing; some say it's the price of success. Some say culture doesn't scale. Well, we believe that you have to hold fast to traditions and keep new processes in line with core philosophies. This means respecting the team and their work. Employees shouldn't have to share a cake on their birthday month, and clients shouldn't have to fill out a ticket just to speak to a project manager. Many argue that you have to separate work and life. We think the best concepts and client experiences happen over a good beer, good food, and talking with good people."

Brian Easter is the CEO of Nebo, an award-winning digital marketing agency working with both emerging and Fortune 500 firms. Connect with Brian on twitter at @neboweb.

The culture of a company is a vital part of that company's success. For agencies, who have to maintain a reputation for creativity and vibrancy, that culture is paramount. It can be easy to start off on the right foot with company culture, but as deadlines and meetings take over, you and your team can lose the spark that make you great.

You don't want this to happen at your agency. As an agency leader, what can you do to encourage, and protect, a strong, innovative company culture?

  • Identify opportunities – At every level of your company, employees should be encouraged to seek out opportunities for innovation. There should be no barriers to employees suggesting ways of improving processes, techniques or business practices.
  • Experiment – in order to change and improve, you have to take some measure of risk. There is always a possibility that an innovative idea can fail, and not only do you have to be OK with that, but your team has to know you're OK with that.
  • Establish Core Values – within your team, come up with a set of core values your company stand for. These values could have to do with integrity, sustainability, quality, or anything else that's important to you. Measure everything you do against these values and encourage your team to think about ways they can improve the business according to these values.
  • Don't Give Up – culture is a set of social rules, behaviours, cues, rituals, and symbols that together create an environment where people interact. You can't just "set and forget" with culture, it's something you have to work on every day. If you mess up, and you will inevitably mess up, then take a step back, admit your mistake, and work toward finding a solution.
  • Figure out What Is and Isn't Working – talk to your team about what works and doesn't work in your agency culture. What do they like about working at your company? What could be improved?
  • Have some fun! – Just because its work doesn't mean it has to be boring. With your creative team you should be able to come up with simple, inexpensive suggestions to make your workplace and your client relations more relaxed and fun.

Lesson #5: Awesome Agencies are Adaptable


dbaldwin2 David Baldwin is lead guitar at Baldwin&.

"The challenge today is to keep your business model adaptable through all the changes happening to our industry. There is something waiting to disrupt you at every turn, new realities you never imagined the year before. Social media, crowd-sourcing companies, big data, production companies becoming agencies, to name a few. They come at you so lightning fast, you have to be nimble and not too entrenched in the old ways of doing things. In practicality, that means take work you're interested in and find a way to get it done. As opposed to building a capability that you will then have to feed month in and month out because of the investment you've made in it. We've outsourced most of our production just so we don't have to have people sitting around waiting to be paid. Our focus stays on ideas in whatever form and not on having to support the machinery it takes to execute this idea or that idea or the other. "

David Baldwin is lead guitar (that's his actual title) of Baldwin&, a Raleigh, N. C based agency that was named "Small Agency of the Year by Advertising Age in 2012. Connect with David on twitter at @baldwinand.

Technology, advertising, social media, cloud computing – the world changes so fast, and agency leaders have to be ready to change the way they do things to suit the market. Being adaptable in business is about being fluid – a rigid business model will collapse under the pressure of a changing market. Instead, you want to roll and flow along with the changes, and as often as possible, using them to your advantage.

In many ways, an agency model is an out-dated concept. What worked in advertising and marketing 50 years ago doesn't necessarily work now. As an agency leader it's your job to take what does work and weave it alongside new ideas and ways of doing things.

The adaptable, flexible agency of today might incorporate:

  • Flexible staffing – More and more agencies are doing what Baldwin& describe above and using an increasing amount of flexible staff. This enables an agency to adjust their workforce as their needs change throughout the sales cycle. The less people you have in your office, the smaller the space you need and the less billable hours you require each month to keep the business afloat. See our in-depth study of flexible staffing to learn more about how you can utilize freelancers and contract workers.
  • Point of difference – it should be immediately obvious to any client what you offer as an agency is better than what they could get anywhere else. You have to figure out what makes you special, and sing your own praises from the rooftops.
  • Work/life balance – working 60+ hour weeks is slowly becoming a thing of the past, with agencies focused on the quality of work, rather than the time invested. More workers are telecommuting, creating flexible schedules and working from exotic locales.
  • Cloud technology – there's no doubt that the cloud offers us a glimpse into the future of business … global, adaptable and collaborative. How can your agency use cloud technology to improve their processes and make their company run more efficiently? Check out our guide to running your agency in the cloud for more ideas on what the cloud can do for your agency.

Lesson #6: Learn to manage stress


BarbWeb Barbara Bates, founder and CEO of Eastwick.

"Something I wish I knew when I first started is the need to make a conscious decision about riding the emotional rollercoaster that comes with a career. Meaning, make sure to celebrate the highs to balance out the lows OR decide not to ride the emotional rollercoaster. We spend so much of our lives working. I made a decision to stop riding the emotional rollercoaster but it took me a long time to figure it out. Instead of letting hard times exhaust me I now know that I will learn something valuable from each experience and that it will always get better."

Barbara Bates is the founder and CEO of Eastwick, a strategic communications/PR agency with a focus on technology. Connect with Barbara on twitter at @eastwickcom

The agency lifestyle isn't exactly conducive to low stress levels. If you're not overworked and worrying about deadlines, you're underworked and worrying about where the next job is coming from. If it's not pressure to come up with the "next big thing" then its pressure on your bottom line from business growth.

No matter the size or type of agency you run, a high-stress environment is unavoidable. You can't control what the market is doing or what clients think. What you have to do is focus on what you can control, and work to minimise and eliminate stress in these areas.

  • Break large tasks into small, manageable projects – Avoid being overwhelmed by the sheer volume of work for your creative team by focusing not on the huge projects, but on completing a series of small challenges. WorkflowMax's workflow management software helps with this, as you can break huge jobs down into different parts and assign deadlines, milestones and to-do lists to each part.
  • Celebrate the wins – Barbara is right; we spend far too much time working, and not enough time reflecting on what we're working for. Take the time to celebrate the wins, whether that's treating your team to lunch to thank them for working so hard, or taking the afternoon off after completing a major project.
  • Switch off – When you go home for the night, turn off your phone, don't check your email or bring work home with you. Declare your home life free of work stress, and focus 100% of your attention outside the business on your family, friends and passions.
  • Keep healthy – It's amazing how much better you'll feel about life, and how improved your capacity for dealing with stress, if you keep your body and mind healthy. A few simple changes to your routine – such as going for a walk during your lunch hour, replacing your morning coffee with green juice, and getting 8 hours sleep every night – can give you a whole new outlook on life.
  • Think positive, or surround yourself with optimists – I'm a pretty positive person, so I find being able to see the good side in every situation is a great tool to help agency leaders become more resourceful. It's not always possible to change your thinking though, if you're a pessimist or a cynic by nature, so surround yourself with optimists who will do all that positive thinking for you.

Lesson #7: Healing the Growing Pains


charlie Charles Van Vechten, President at Jacob Tyler Creative Group.

"The greatest challenge we have faced is our relatively fast growth. In 2009 we were 10 people, today we are at 30. The growth is a result of acquiring a couple small firms, adding new services to our toolbox, and growing our client base in new markets. The challenge has been what I call our growing pains. More employees means we needed different and better protocols and processes to maintain efficiencies. More services means we added more touch points within the agency, so new ways to ensure we continued to deliver top quality work on time was difficult initially.

Generally, the biggest challenges as a creative leader and owner of an agency are maintaining a high level of efficiency (aka profitability) without creative output suffering, keeping the staff motivated and engaged in the success of the company, and maintaining a great company culture, even when times are tough."

Charles Van Vechten is President at Jacob Tyler Creative Group, an award-winning, full-service brand communications firm specializing in brand development, print collateral, web design, web development, product design and online marketing. Connect with Charles on twitter at @jtcg.

Building a successful small agency is one thing – growing it into a leading global brand is another thing altogether. Entering a growth stage is one of the most exciting – but also the most terrifying – times to be a business owner. To come out the other end with your agency and your sanity still intact, you'll need to establish goals and core values and trusting your instincts.

Here are our tips for leading an agency through a growth stage:

  • Set Goals and Expectations – growth is pointless if it doesn't get you where you want to go. Sit down with your team and come up with the goals and direction for your company moving forward.
  • Look at the experts – There are plenty of agencies who started off where you are now and have grown into multi-million-dollar businesses. The best place to begin is to look at what they've done and see if you can pull any lessons from their experience. Check out some of the books by agency leaders in our post, The 25 Must-Read Books for Agency Executives – many of these contain detailed advice on growth strategies. Or, alternatively, contact leaders in these agencies and see if they might consider sitting down with you over coffee and talking about the growth process.
  • Outsource – for example, many agency leaders don't think to outsource their PR requirements, but it's one of the easiest ways to free up time to focus on the future of the company. Look for aspects of your work that can be outsourced without affecting quality or causing delays for clients.
  • Empower your team when all the members of your team are as committed to seeing the company grow, you'll see the desired results much more rapidly. Find ways to reward your team for their hard work and give them opportunities to take the initiative in finding new opportunities for the company.
  • Say no – sometimes you'll be presented with new business and new opportunities that might tide you over in the short term, but don't align with your goals and plans for growth. It's important to recognise these pitfalls and avoid being side-tracked by the promise of "money now".
  • Bring in an advisor – Charles believes during a growth phase an outside pair of eyes could prove invaluable to helping an agency succeed. "I'm generally pretty organized and like to have a plan before taking any action." says Charles. "But in this case, it was difficult to feel "on top" of the situation. If I could do it over I would bring in an advisor to assist with the growth strategies up front, and eliminate the trial and error!"

Lesson #8: Empower Your Clients Through Education


christine-barbieri Christine Barbieri, founder of Blinking Diode

"I underestimated just how big the client education piece is, particularly for the more technological aspects of digital marketing. Anyone can throw out massive amounts of data points and buzzwords, but the greater challenge for me has been distilling that complex data and research into streamlined information that can be easily understood by everyone. Then you can present strategic ideas. This concept carries over to our business as well. We strive to provide marketing metrics that are easily tracked back to core business objectives: win new customers, keep existing customers happy and grow revenue. When I'm getting too convoluted I always think of the Mark Twain quote, "I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead."

Christine Barbieri is the founder of Blinking Diode, a digital agency focusing on strategy across platforms. Connect with Christine on Twitter at @CLBarb.

The concept of educating clients about your industry can seem foreign to many agency professionals. It's easy to understand why – after all, if you teach your clients how to do what you do, then why do they need you anymore, right?

Wrong. In fact, the exact opposite is true: The more you teach your client about what you do, the more they realise how much they need you. An educated client is one who understands the value you provide, is less likely to quibble over prices and deadlines, and feels as if they've been made part of the creative process. Educated clients are more likely to bring return business and also give the best referrals.

In contrast, clients who aren't given the chance to learn about what you're doing, how you're doing it and why it matters feel alienated from their own project. The will rely on their own, often shaky, interpretation of your industry and as such will often value your services much less. They are more likely to haggle over prices and be overly demanding.

So don't be afraid of educating your clients! Here are some tips:

  • Think about Pain Points – a "pain point" is a term for the things that worry a client most – their most burning questions. A client won't tell you what their pain points are – you have to read between the lines. A client might be asking you about your prices and deadlines, but what they're really worried about is "Am I paying too much for this service?" "Are we going to get the results we need?" "Am I making a huge mistake?" "Am I getting majorly ripped off here?" One of the ways of addressing these types of concerns is to walk the client through the intricacies of their campaign and point out areas where they might be able to save money by doing some of the work (such as Facebook updates) by themselves.
  • Offer simple and clear communication – create a system and culture whereby clients are able to call the office anytime with questions and talk to someone who can answer their questions and tell them the status of their job.
  • Cut the jargon – remember that just because you understand CPC, CTR and RSS, doesn't mean your client does. Keep conversations simple and stop to explain terms.
  • Use education to convert leads – many agencies use education opportunities as lead generators. For example, offering free website audits, or free seminars about online marketing or PR for businesses. You can also use free informational ebooks to encourage signups to a newsletter. This is a great way to meet potential clients while helping business owners learn more about what your industry does.

Lesson #9: Learn to Say No


Screen shot 2013-11-27 at 5.33.23 PM David Rodnitzky, founder and CEO of 3Q Digital.

"The greatest challenge for me has been learning to say no to clients, when appropriate of course! Sometimes this means disagreeing with a suggested strategy, sometimes this means refusing to take business from a client that you know is not a good fit. At the end of the day, though, it is much better to be honest with clients upfront than to placate someone and lead them down a path that does damage to their business, as that will eventually do damage to your agency as well!"

David Rodnitzky is the founder and CEO of 3Q Digital, an integrated digital agency creating stunning online campaigns for clients. Connect with David on Twitter at @3QDigital.

Agency folk are "yes!" folk – we like to believe anything is possible, and we want our clients to be happy.

Unfortunately, although you can theoretically do every job that lands on your desk, and you can theoretically include every change your client wants, you probably shouldn't. Being a pushover is no way to get ahead as an agency, especially if saying "yes!" means compromising the integrity of a project or your own values.

We've already covered when to say no to potential clients in Lesson #2, now, let's look at when, and how, you should say no to a current client:

  • When they think they're the creative – the client shows up to your creative brief with their own sketches and plans … and won't hear a word that deviates from them. If pleasing the client results in an inferior product you're embarrassed to have your name on, it might be better to drop the client.
  • When they want lots of little changes – the number of and nature of revisions should be outlined clearly in the contract, but this often doesn't stop some clients insisting on more and more changes. You'll need to be strong and make it clear that more revisions = a higher fee and if they argue, it might be time to say goodbye. Check out our article Agencies – dealing with multiple revisions on a project for more advice.
  • When they're asking for something that goes against your values – even a client you've worked with many times before can ask for work that goes against your agency values. When they do it's important that you don't compromise on your integrity – even if it costs you your best client.
  • When they can't make a decision – indecisive clients, or clients who hold up deadlines, can cause damage to your team, and your bottom line, as projects drag for months and everyone involved loses enthusiasm. Delays on the client end are common in the agency biz, but if it's getting out of hand then it might be time to wave that client goodbye.

Lesson #10: Know Your Worth


jenn-rarick Jenn Hoffman, President of Pivot Marketing

"When I started Pivot, I wish I'd had a more thorough understanding of what our services were worth. I would have had more gumption to negotiate more with vendors and clients. I also wish I'd known how to focus on what the client really wanted instead of just answering the questions they were firing at me, like 'Who are your clients?' and 'What do you charge?' I've learned that it's about reframing the conversation to uncover what they really want to achieve and what they're looking for in a partner. It's about looking for the best fit, not just for ourselves, but also for the client."

Jenn Hoffman is the President of Pivot Marketing, a sports marketing agency connecting properties with potential partners. Connect with Jenn on Twitter at @pivotmarketing.

Pricing for your services can be a difficult task for any agency leader, especially when you've come from a freelance background and aren't used to such dramatic overheads. There's a real danger of under-pricing, as agencies try to stay competitive and don't understand the real demands of each project.

How are you pricing your services? Are you undervaluing your work? Here are my tips to ensure your rates reflect your agency expertise and value:

  • Create a rate sheet – You don't have to show this sheet to clients, but a rate sheet helps you to quickly and easily benchmark a project against several set price points.
  • Understand your finances – Good pricing relies first and foremost on an accurate snapshot of your financial state. What are your minimum overheads? How many billable hours per week do you need to break even? How much do you want to make in profit this year? Having a clear picture of your finances, as well as your financial goals, will help you price your offerings for sustainable business.
  • Know when to work for free, and when you shouldn't – most agencies will end up doing some pro bono work; a great charity campaign can really put your agency name on the map, for instance. But when clients are trying to wheedle free or under-priced work out of you, there has to be a point when you say, "no. This is our price and we're sticking to it." Value your expertise and your people enough not to undercharge for them.
  • Avoid talking about the price first – focus on the value your agency will add to the business. For example, sit down with the client and explain the entire process, from conception to execution, from revisions to results. Once they realise how involved the process is, they will be more receptive of a higher price.
  • Time track – use tools like WorkflowMax to track the time your staff spend on each stage of a project. The Adobe Acrobat Extension allows a team member to track time from within the creative suite, eliminating distractions and ensuring better staff adoption rates. The more you understand about the time it really takes your team to finish a job, the more accurate your rate sheet will be.

Lesson #11: Your Success isn't just built on results

"I wish that when I started the business I understood that agency success is not 100% based on results. We started our agency with this hypothesis - if we provide superior ROI to clients, they would never leave us. It turns out, of course, that ROI is just one part of the equation. Building strong relationships at multiple levels inside a client's organization is important, as is providing great reports and transparency into tactics and strategy. I'm sure that most long-time agency folks reading this are thinking "No Duh!" but I was 100% client-side before starting my agency so this came as a shock to me. "

David Rodnitzky is the founder and CEO of 3Q Digital, an integrated digital agency creating stunning online campaigns for clients. Connect with David on Twitter at @3QDigital.

Results are everything. Until they aren’t.

The results you get for your client are very important, but to a certain extent, they aren't what defines you as an agency. Anyone with some knowledge of your industry should be able to improve your client's performance over a period of time. What makes your agency stand out isn't the numbers – it always comes back to the relationship you've built.

As human beings, we value relationships higher than almost anything else. That's why we'll go to the mechanic our friend recommends even though he's $50 more expensive than the one around the corner. And that's why a client will stick with an agency through several years and many different projects, and will often pay more for an agency to bring in experts to deal with an overload of work than to find another agency.

If you can show the client that you understand their business and their pain points, that you aren't cagey about showing your results and what you did to achieve them, that you are strategizing with them for the long term, and – most importantly – that you make good on your promises, well, then you're going to have a client for life.

Results are only one part of the equation, and they shouldn't be the sole focus of your marketing and retention campaigns. Present results in a transparent, easy-to-understand way, and focus your attention on creative a positive, mutually-rewarding customer experience.

Lesson #12: Grow the best creative team


michael_smit_portrait_final1 Michael Smit, CEO of Invoke.

"The greatest challenge for a successful agency is finding absolute alignment between your client and your team. We need brands that have creative potential, and an individual representative of the brand that is savvy enough to embrace innovation. Then, within our team, we need to ensure we have the vision to service that client's strategic needs. Also, the same thing that inspires you to enjoy and relish the agency culture is the same thing that makes it so tenuous: the variety of work every single day. We’re constantly seeking new experiences and innovations and because of that we don’t always know what we’re going to be doing next. That applies to finding new work or answering briefs or restating what we’re experts at. And therein lies the challenge."

"We like to think that we hire people who know 80% of what they do well. The other 20% is a nebulous combination of digital intervention, independent play (I just learned this term from my 2 year old), and unrestrained creativity. I want designers who like code, coders who love film, strategists who love graffiti, and it doesn’t hurt to have some musicians, gamers, and motorheads in the office. The future is not about accepting differences, it’s about creating them, and expressing them through yourself. If everyone is totally different, aren’t we all kind of the same… in a good way?"

Michael Smit is the CEO of Invoke – A Digital Innovation Company based in Vancouver, BC and infamous for being the creators of HootSuite. Connect with Michael on twitter at @Invoke.

It has already been said numerous times in this article, but bears repeating – an agency is only as good as its team. You can have the most fabulous office space, the most desirable clients and the most enviable accounts, but if your team is mediocre, you're going to fail. If there is one lesson you take away from this article it should be that surrounding yourself with creative, dedicated, passionate and hardworking individuals – who are just as invested in the firm's success as you are – is the biggest guarantee of success.

We wrote a great article about hiring the best people for your agency. In my experience, it boils down to:

  • Look for passion – plenty of people have experience in an agency or in a particular field, but what you should be looking for above all else is people who are passionate about their craft. Passion is what carries your staff through the difficult times and makes all their hard work worthwhile.
  • Offer exciting benefits – agencies often can't pay much, but you can offer great benefits for the right candidates, such as flexible work hours, lunch daily, or an extra week of holiday leave.
  • Be flexible – today's worker is increasingly aware of commuting costs and time spent away from family. More and more people are looking for telecommuting, flexible schedules and freelance/contractor opportunities. These types of flexible employees can complement your on-site staff and add extra hands during busy times. See our article on flexible staffing options and what agencies need to know about hiring freelancers to learn more about the benefits of a flexible staffing model.
  • Ask for referrals – people in your network probably know amazing copywriters, designers, marketers, PR experts, account managers and other creative folk they could recommend. This is the best way to find people as they have often been veted by trustworthy people.

Lesson #13: Value integrity above all else


ric dragon Ric Dragon, CEO of DragonSearch.

"A lot of the business essentials that we all learn about – having a vision, values, and a mission statement – tend to be things that we go through. Once an organization really has these in a way that the people in the organization "own," it takes on a whole new life. One part of that is developing meaningful purpose – not just things that sound like they were lifted off of someone else's playbook. It needs to be felt, in the guts. And then, it needs to be talked about in all sorts of ways ALL THE TIME. You need to hire, fire, give raises, and make business decisions based on these things. When you do, it's powerful."

Ric Dragon is the author of Social Marketology, and is CEO of DragonSearch, a global boutique digital marketing agency. Connect with Ric on Twitter at @RicDragon.

Ric has pretty much nailed it – integrity is at the heart of any successful agency. This integrity isn't something you can teach – you either live your life with integrity, or you don't.

An agency that does business with integrity is one that has established a set of core values, and not only lives those values every single day, but makes those values an integral part of every facet of the business.

Integrity isn't something your agency does. It's something you are.

Lesson #14. Find creative ways to stay current


ola-danilina Ola Danilina, CEO of the PMBC Group.

"PR techniques have dramatically changed in the last 5 years.
Senior staff are sometimes uncomfortable with Social Media and the new "out of the box" PR campaigns. We were able to solve this challenge by combining teams of Senior staff with Generation Y staff who are open to learning new things from each other in our creative and friendly environment. It's finding that fine line of great to invest in and build the right team, we have been lucky enough to find and grow some brilliant publicists."

Ola Danilina is the CEO of the PMBC Group, an LA-based PR and marketing firm with a focus on the technology of today. Connect with Ola on Twitter at PMBCGroup.

An agency's core business is subject to dramatic changes in the marketplace. Just think of what's changed in marketing and PR over the past decade. This rapid adoption of new technology is the reason many older, larger firms are shutting their doors – they just haven't found a way to adapt.

PMBC have found a great way to combat the change in technology, by empowering their staff to work together to share knowledge. There are many other things an agency can do to keep up with

  • Partner with other firms – for example, a PR firm might develop a close working relationship with a digital marketing firm, which will help keep them on the pulse of changing technology.
  • Get regular training – keep your team at the forefront of your industry through regular training. Remember, training doesn't have to cost a bundle or involve a university or training facility; you can find great podcasts, webinars and online courses.
  • Partner freelancers with full-time staff – many agencies bring in experts as freelancers or consultants to lend their expertise to particular projects. Why not partner these people up with your in-house team, so that each can learn off the other?
  • Get them in the real world – instead of your team working away in their offices, why not send them out into the real world? Get your team into the offices of your clients so they can see how their campaign will affect day-to-day business.

Lesson #15: Have Fun!

"I wish I¹d known how fun and rewarding it would be to run my own place because I would have done it 10 years earlier. We started at the bottom of the recession five years ago and have had double digit growth every year since … A company is a group of people, an organism, not a just a building that you go to. It's an idea and an ethos. The quality of the people you bring in, and the quality of the work you set them to doing is absolutely essential."

David Baldwin is lead guitar (that's his actual title) of Baldwin&, a Raleigh, N. C based agency that was named "Small Agency of the Year by Advertising Age in 2012. Connect with David on twitter at @baldwinand.

Agency life is hectic, maddening and a roller coaster of emotions, but it's also the most fun you can have while at work. In what other industry do you get to use creativity to solve problems for amazing businesses every single day? People who work in agencies are dedicated, passionate and energetic – and you'll come to work every day amazed by what they come up with.

There's a reason so many people love working in agencies, despite the often gruelling hours and unimpressive salaries. Don't lose sight of why you started in this business in the first place – take the time to appreciate and celebrate what you and your team have achieved, and to embrace the zest for life and fun that makes the agency life so worthwhile. It's the people you surround yourself with and the values you embrace that make life worthwhile – don't let yourself forget this amidst all the deadlines and disasters.


There's a lot of info and advice here to digest. As an agency leader, it is important to constantly strive to improve your own management practices and your agency's work and process. The more you learn from those at the top of their industry, the more your shop is able to grow and prosper.

Here's a summary of the topics covered:

  • Lesson #1: Form Partnerships with Agency Clients
  • Lesson #2: Only Take on Work You Believe In
  • Lesson #3: Learn the Art of Delegation
  • Lesson #4: Protect Your Culture
  • Lesson #5: Awesome Agencies are Adaptable
  • Lesson #6: Learn to Manage Stress
  • Lesson #7: Find a Way to Handle the Growing Pains
  • Lesson #8: Empower Your Clients Through Education
  • Lesson #9: Learn to Say No
  • Lesson #10: Know Your Worth
  • Lesson #11: Your Success Isn't Just Built on Results
  • Lesson #12: Grow the Best Creative Team
  • Lesson #13: Value Integrity Above All Else
  • Lesson #14: Find Creative Ways to Stay Current
  • Lesson #15: Have Fun!

Life as an agency leader is stressful, empowering, chaotic, creative, inspiring, entrepreneurial, value-driven, collaborative, combative and creative. Ask any of the agency leaders on this list if they'd trade their work for a lottery win or a cushy office job, and I bet they'd say no.

What lessons have you learnt through running an agency that you could share with us?



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Steff Green
Steff Green is one of WorkflowMax's resident wordsmiths, writing everything from website pages to blog posts, ebooks, emails and everything in between. Steff is also an award-winning author, with several fantasy novels available on Amazon. When she’s not writing up a storm, Steff lives on a lifestyle block with her musician husband, two cantankerous cats, several sheep and chickens and her medieval sword collection.

Steff Green