Drew McLellan leads the Agency Management Institute, a consultancy to small- and medium-sized advertising agencies.

Some things creep up slowly in life, like global warming and receding hairlines. Now you can add to that list: The reign of digital teams in agencies.

As digital advertising continues its double-digit growth, more and more agencies routinely rely on tech-driven campaigns to keep the lights on. And as web, mobile, and social command larger and larger chunks of clients’ budgets, the teams tasked with executing these campaigns often start calling the shots.

In a well-run agency in which all departments communicate effectively and honor agency protocol, a powerful digital team can retain its autonomy without much trouble.

Unfortunately, when team members stop respecting agency leadership and begin doing their own thing, they can drive projects over budget and behind schedule. I’ve seen strapped teams give preferential treatment to favorite account executives and even stonewall projects by refusing to answer technical questions.

When digital teams go rogue, agency owners can find themselves held hostage by their tech-savvy employees. The advertising world is plagued by a digital talent shortage, so for many agency owners, keeping their digital divas happy seems like a safer option than letting them go.

When agency owners feel beholden to their digital teams, these employees can cut leadership out of the decision-making process and severely damage the agency’s ability to function.

One agency I know sold a large digital project to a new client that included a website redesign. The team put together a timeline and budget for completion, and everything seemed to be going smoothly.

Weeks later, the account executive discovered that the programmers had invested 40 unauthorized hours on “improving” the site. The project was running behind and over budget, and the agency had to eat the overage.

Even worse, the client took the delay as a sign that the agency couldn’t handle such a large project and reallocated 75 percent of the work to the agency’s competitors.

How agency owners can regain control

This nightmare scenario is an extreme example, but for agencies that are already dealing with an imbalance of power, it’s time to reset expectations before it’s too late.

Teams that put together a diverse leadership team can have a seat at the table for discussions about the agency’s future. But one department’s preferences should never come at the expense of what’s good for the organization as a whole.

Some agencies are still adhering to processes developed before the rise of digital. If those agencies invite each department head to weigh in on any that impede workflows or create unnecessary silos, they can develop a framework for decision-making and a rewards system that incentivizes all departments to complete work on time and under budget.

But not everyone will honor that framework, thinking the rules don’t apply to them and that there aren’t really any consequences for people who break them. But if agencies want to see real change and real improvements, they must enforce consequences, which may even include letting problem employees go.

Cultivating relationships with freelancers or agency peer alliances can allow agencies to prevent themselves from being held hostage by digital talent because they aren’t forced to keep troublesome team members. Education and cross-training throughout the entire agency can also empower well-meaning digital mavens to build upon the entire agency’s digital know-how.

With digital advertising revenue on track to surpass $50 billion this year and the growing digital talent gap, many agency owners are slowly losing power in their own organizations. The best way to stop this dangerous shift is to reset expectations and work to end the knowledge monopoly.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.com.

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