Confessions of a small agency partner

This article is part of our Confessions series, in which we trade anonymity for candor to get an unvarnished look at the people, processes and problems inside the industry. More from the series →

There is no shortage of headlines about the “changing the agency model” or the “threats to the agency model” or the “broken agency model,” so maybe it should come as no surprise that being a partner at a small agency isn’t always a walk in the park.

That’s why Digiday spoke to a partner at a small agency to get the dirt on what stresses her out the most. She gave us an earful about clients’ “Ikea mentality,” why agency collaboration most often doesn’t work, the challenges of being a women in ad land and more. Find the full collection of Digiday Confessions here.

What keeps you up at night most as partner of a small agency?
Imaginary, thoughtful conversations with my clients where they actually listen to what I have say and then ask me to make a recommendation. Wondering how I’m supposed to do everything faster, cheaper and better on short-term project fees instead of annual retainers. Where am I going to find the caliber of talent I need at the price I can afford to run this agency?

The days of clients having just one agency — or any kind of loyalty to agencies — are long gone. What’s most challenging about navigating the instability of agency life?
The wave of resentment that washes over me when my clients appear not to appreciate the work, the commitment or the value on display before them. I find a lot of clients being coy about what they want you to do for them. If you, as a client, don’t like something or want to see more work, then say that! We build revisions into our profit model. We are happy to do revisions and try again. Please let me do it again – nothing would make me happier than to get it right for you. I think because there are so many agencies out there and so many agencies willing to undercut on price, clients have an Ikea mentality about agencies and the work they do. Buy it, break it, discard it and then go back to the store for more. It breaks my heart every time I see it happen.

But can agencies actually collaborate?
Yes, I think agency collaboration is possible if there’s long-term commitment to agency partners and alignment of interests based on shared financial incentives for interagency collaboration. Otherwise, it all breaks down as agencies jockey for the biggest piece of the pie.

Agency incentives aren’t aligned, though. Sometimes it’s just every agency for themselves?
Yes — 90 percent of the time.

Everyone always talks about the agency model being broken, but what’s the solution then?
I’m not going to tell you, and no one would believe me even if I did. You’ll just have to wait and see. Maybe it’s the “client model” that’s broken. Agencies with smart, thoughtful clients still do amazing work together. Why is it always the agency’s fault?

Where are the most common areas that clients and agencies don’t see eye to eye — where does communication or understanding breakdown?
Placing a fair value on the development of great creative ideas and the amount of time it takes to deliver great creative ideas.

Being a woman in a top agency position is rare. Do you feel it’s been harder for you to get to where you are as a woman?
I’m incredibly hard on myself – probably harder than I need to be. But I feel a lot of pressure to always have the answer, always be on call, always get the job done. I don’t want anyone, ever, to say, think or feel that I couldn’t do the job because I’m a woman and a mother. I always want to be one step ahead of them. Truthfully, yes, I do think it’s harder. You have to cut through a lot of bullshit assumptions and insensitive language to earn a seat at the table. And even then, sometimes you hear things like “maybe you’re the Chief Emotional Officer,” which is ridiculous but laughable because it’s such a stupid, 1980’s thing to say in a meeting with the woman who’s your boss.

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