Teams, clients, and cash: How to manage the three pillars of agency life

When I launched this series I had a simple goal. I wanted to call bullshit on the idea that agency creatives don’t need to be business smart. We talked to agency founders to learn how they turned creative success into business, took on lazy industry advice, and learned the difference between having a vision and having actionable goals.

To close things out I want to go back to basics. How can creatives play a more active role in growing their agency’s business and what sort of skills should they develop to do it. What are the tangible, actionable steps creatives can take to impact the finances, client relationships, and team dynamics within their agencies.

The Money

The smartest thing you can do as a creative–whether you’re leading a team or just starting out–is understand how money flows into and out of your agency. Creatives need to be thinking about finances, from long-term profit to short-term revenue. Once you understand that, then you’ll know how to contribute to it. Here are three rules to follow:

Know where new business comes from – Business development isn’t just for the the accounts team. Creatives are a major part of the pitches process. An art director can be just as important to landing a new account than the account manager—if they know what they’re doing.

Listen to your business leaders – For creatives, learning finance doesn’t mean sitting down with the accounting team. Talk to executives and agency leaders about financial goals, understand what’s driving the agency and what targets you’re aiming to hit. Then figure out where you and your work fit into those objectives. Where is money being driven into and out of your company and how can you be a part of it.

Don’t just focus on the long-term – Agency pros tend to focus on the big picture, 12-24 month goals. Instead think about monthly and quarterly goals and how you can contribute to these short-term wins.

The Clients

The biggest mistake you can make in agency life, no matter what your role, is not knowing the clients. The best agencies I’ve worked with know that clients relationships don’t stop at C-Suite execs and the accounts team. Employees at every tier need to be engaged with the client. There are three steps that any agency employee should be taking when it comes to client relationships.

Forget about “partnerships” – It’s popular right now to talk about your agency-client “partnership.” Agencies think this word moves them closer to the client. Hey, it’s better than being a “vendor,” right? But we can do better. This is an emotional business and the agency-client dynamic is more like a relationship than a business partnership. Think of it as a budding romance. How much effort would you put into planning that first date? How intimately should you know your partner by the fifth date? When do you get engaged? Partnerships are temporary, relationships have staying power.

Be High Touch – In these era of slimming margins everyone is trying to be efficient about communications. But creatives should be looking for ways to be more in touch with  clients and their business rather than less. The more points of contact and engagement you have, the more the relationship is going to flourish. Breakdowns happen when there isn’t enough contact.

Use Technology, the right way – To my previous point, too many agencies are allowing technology to step between them and their clients. Instead of relying on long email chains, use technology to get more facetime with your clients your clients. Look someone in the eye, even if it’s over a Google hangout or Skype, is worth a thousand “reply alls.”.

The Team

The industry loves to talk about culture, morale and employee engagement, but what we’re really referring to is team dynamics. Creative leaders should be thinking about how their teams fit together at the macro and micro level. Do you have the players you need to make great work, and how are they working together?

Look at the big picture first – It’s easy to get bogged down in the details. Before you start thinking about team culture in terms of your next hire, we need to think about the kind of team we’re building overall. Creating good work depends on having all the pieces you need.

Read the room – Account managers and executives know their clients intimately, but the responsibility doesn’t stop there. Whether it’s an internal meeting or a client pitch every member of the team needs to you need to grasp the group dynamic or you’ll be screwed.

Go beyond superficial diversity – Diversity is a hot topic with good reason, but it can’t be surface level diversity. Creatives should be thinking about the communities that their clients are interacting with and bringing in voices that can share those perspectives. Gender and ethnicity is just the beginning. Digging deeper into geography, personality, and skillsets is the only way to make great work.

Keeping these pillars in mind will help creatives cut through the noise and bullshit of agency life and focus on doing the kind of work the builds business, drives revenue, and develops careers. For more on the importance of business smarts in agency life you can catch me at Digiday’s Agency Summit in Nashville Tennessee on March 2nd where I’ll kick off our next Agency Smarts series.

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