Can you run a successful agency if you focus on your values, relationships and what is really meaningful to people?
Yes, I’ve learned. Twelve years ago, I had the opportunity to purchase an ad agency — right at the time when I was burnt out and frustrated with my career and the industry overall. I acknowledge I’d had what you would describe as a successful career up until that point. I recognized I was living what might be seen as the advertising dream. Working for large brands, launching big-time products, doing national promotions, managing a great team of people I cared about. Yet, I was at a crossroads in my career. What I was doing and who I was doing it for didn’t fulfill me. So I asked myself a question.
Can an ad agency that focuses on doing meaningful work, incorporating both what it’s affecting in the world and who it’s affecting it for, be successful in an industry that’s founded on consumerism and driving margin for powerful corporations?
In today’s world, it’s thought that what makes an agency good are things like proprietary branding processes and edgy creative work. And although deep expertise in an agency is critical, it’s also about being the kind of agency that cares about the deeper influences its team generates, and the companies the teams are generating for.
It takes much more than expert capabilities, brilliant talent and leading technologies to be a competitive agency in such a saturated industry. It requires integrity. It calls for a culture rich in both how something should be done, and why it’s being done at all.
So it’s worth asking what fulfills you, and what fulfills the people who want to work with you. What organizations would they want to work their hearts out for? And what kind of an agency will provide them the ability to do the best work of their lives? To be an agency that’s values-led, you must align those values with the work you do and the clients you partner with.
To truly help the good guys win, start by asking what are the qualities and requirements that define who the good guys are.
From there, evaluate how you can build a thriving business by only working for meaningful (to you) brands. Decide what you’re willing to sacrifice as a business in order to do business with integrity. And then, you’ll need to strategize how you can do this and maintain a margin that will work.
We once left a 33-year long client relationship after they changed their model of working with agencies by assigning work to the agency via a reverse auction model. Whoever was the lowest priced was awarded the campaign. We didn't feel this system prioritized partnership or a commitment to doing great work by the client, so we pulled out. Times change, and that's fine, but when values aren't in alignment within the changes, it just won't be successful. Even if that financially hurts.
Because it’s one thing to say your agency is value-led; it’s another to truly live the opportunities and consequences of that credo and still build a thriving agency. It’s a lot of work.
Leading an agency from a foundation of values is a constant business decision. It is both easier than you might think, and harder. Easier in that you are clear and focused and have meaning in what you do. Harder in that the operations of running an agency can be more difficult —namely, if you set standards you can and can’t support, you limit the pipeline, yet will still need to maintain a client list that can support competitive staff salaries and reserve enough margin to contribute to the community.
But it can work.
The world needs what responsible, thoughtful brands bring. It also needs agencies that make the sacrifice to help the good companies win. That’s what it means to be a modern agency today.