I wanna talk about something
it’s about how this agency has screwed up. Made mistakes. Dropped some clangers. Spilled some water…then slipped in it. Mucker up, goofed up, muddled the pudding. Fuzzled up the wiggles!
So hold on to your bloomers people THIS IS A THREAD t.co/cGGn0fGvTn
1/ Article Group was founded 3yrs ago. We’ve done well. We create great ideas. We have wonderful clients. But in those same years, we’ve made a lot of forehead-slappers. And during a recent leadership off-site we decided to make a list of them. There are 37. t.co/eDp6ksguLC
2/ Why? Because we’re building a responsible company. We want to be honest w/ ourselves. We want to learn from our errors. Too many agencies sweep problems under the rug. That creates a toxic environment of overworked and under-appreciated staff, which = poor client service. t.co/On1gWWcdpt
3/ And, well, not learning from mistakes doesn’t scale very well.
We want the opposite. We want to grow responsibly. We want to learn by synthesizing our goofs (also a strategy used by Devo!). t.co/Tv9b9iHe8X
4/ Our mistakes cover every possible function of an agency. Some mistakes concerned basics, i.e., the methods of building a responsible & sturdy business. Other mistakes concerned our offering, i.e., the methods of communicating our value to clients and executing on projects.
5/ The full list is below. I hope it’s useful to other leaders & creatives out there, or gets biz owners to chuckle knowingly w/ the memory that yes, building a client services business is hard … and you’re not the only one who’s slipped on the banana peel. t.co/tP4l46UhmK
(1) Crappy meeting culture!
Daily scrums are great for 1–10 people. Add more people and staffers commit seppuku. So we stopped. Now: meetings by department + once-per-week all-hands. Nobody has ritualistically disemboweled themselves since. t.co/yDdSwhgrCD
(2) Thought good tools would fix bad habits
Repeat after me: Slack will not fix your communication problems. You’ve heard that old saying: water flows where it’s easiest for water to go? Same with people. Still working on this. t.co/8wp5ulo9MP
(3) Didn’t keep everyone updated on wins
Figured everyone would just kinda *know* when good stuff happened. Incorrect. Fixed this with weekly updates.
(4) Didn’t have enough 1-on-1s.
You’ve got to make time to check in. Otherwise assumptions creep in, which causes stress because people don’t know how they’re performing.
(5) Hired jerks
Skills change. People who use the company card to ship their furniture to China don’t change. t.co/9swMu9BZwR
(6) Assumed everyone thought the same way
This was a super goof. I thought everybody thought like me. That most good work was the product of a single actor. This, as you are doubtlessly aware, is super not true. I had to learn to delegate. To listen. To scale.
(7) Didn’t unify our creative functions
Partner #1 comes from brand marketing. Partner #2 comes from the agency world. Both cultures impart valuable lessons. But both use internal resources differently…
…As we grew, the business would be lopsided at times. That created internal tension. So we integrated the two disciplines. Their value lies in connecting their systems and concepts. t.co/TpeFL0hDYX
(8) Didn’t invest enough in project management at the beginning
I know, I know, I know! What a goof. We fixed this quickly. Still embarrassing to admit! 😬 😬 😬
(9) Didn’t let go of old ideas quickly enough
When we began, we hired specialists who couldn’t teach others. We’ve since learned to invest in leaders and creatives who can teach systems to other employees, which creates the conditions for scalable growth.
(10) Thought a great culture would magically manifest itself
We thought that a great culture would just, y’know, “happen”. Well, we got a culture, but it was disjointed. So we worked towards the culture we wanted. More offsites. More team lunches. The occasional go-kart race. t.co/trRZe1mmT9
(11) No after-action reports
We’d have a great project or a project that didn’t go so well. But either way we didn’t socialize the learnings with an after-action report, so it was hard to distribute knowledge. That was dumb.
(12) Didn’t clarify what we were selling
We confused some of our potential clients by using mealy-mouth language. We hadn’t done the hard work of being explicit about what we sell. This is a constant process of improvement. t.co/u15sSszeuv
(13) Made it too hard to buy our offering
We solve big marketing problems w/ creative systems. But brands don’t have line items for that. Clients: “you guys sound really smart, & a few of you have cool beards, but can you just tell me what exactly you’re going to create?” t.co/8Yg1sg7uRW
(14) Thought a consultant would fix our BD process
Nope. Nyet. Nein. Repeat after me: I will put in the hard work, rather than thinking a single person would magically fix everything. There are no magical unicorn hires! t.co/5IARoJ095F
(15) Didn’t sell strategically
Our business has endured because everyone is in sales. And this can be a good thing! But it wasn’t a good thing when we didn’t *also* have a strategic approach to the market — i.e., targeting brands we wanted to work with, and how.
(16) Competed for the wrong work
Sometimes we’d compete for tactical work— X number of white papers, Y number of banner ads, Z number of articles. We prefer to first work more strategically (“why do you need XYZ?”) instead of assuming the usefulness of XYZ is a given. t.co/AZwfv2eTEc
(17) Sold the right thing at the wrong altitude
CMOs, CTOs, C-whatever-Os…they need systems thinking.
Marketing managers need it, too: they just don’t need it right now. They need tactical solutions. So we stopped trying to sell strategy to people who needed tactics. t.co/7tHHe0WyGN
(18) Didn’t ask enough questions about the client’s business
In the beginning, we didn’t ask enough questions about our clients’ businesses. We made too many assumptions. That lengthens project times and makes it harder to “get to useful” faster.
(19) Didn’t raise our hand
We have great relationships with our clients. We’re super proud of how closely we work together. And so we have seats at various tables waiting for us…but we didn’t ask to sit down! Fixed that. t.co/UfKnBwVa5w
(20) Undercut our own creatives
Some clients want great work done quickly. We’ve agreed to take some shortcuts. Look: this is going to happen. But we’ve learned we have to speak up. That way the client understands the limits of what they might receive.
(21) Used too much jargon
Our habit was to hire super talented people from different types of places (brands, agencies, publishers) and drop them into projects to let them do their thing. Effective! But …
…it prevented us from standardizing our language. We’d have three different staffers using a different word to describe the same thing. I mean … this was just … Dogs and cats. Living together. Mass hysteria. t.co/eXKchE35az
(22) Didn’t define “insight” to our clients
One of the things we sell is insight—i.e., interpreting facts, revealing a deeper truth, and translating that truth into a powerful opportunity. We didn’t explain this to clients, thus leading them to think it wasn’t valuable.
(23) Didn’t include strategists early enough
Strategists are trained to examine client challenges, do the appropriate research, and recommend action. They thrive on context. When you include strategists after the engagement begins they can’t do their best work.
(24) Hired smart people thinking that we’d figure out their role later
This. Doesn’t. Work. We hired against needs and processes that we hadn’t really defined, so we ended up hiring the wrong people. Lesson learned. Know thyself. t.co/AM06HN59iS
(25) Didn’t create a predictable hiring pipeline
We didn’t make clear enough guidelines for who to hire and when. Had a vague idea, and did some research, but we weren’t proactive in implementing. Fixed this.
(26) Didn’t hire quickly enough
We were chronically understaffed, but the team was so productive we didn’t realize how tired they were. Then everybody crashed and a client noticed. Ouch. We restructured a dept, defined projects more thoughtfully, and got a key exec some help.
(27) Should have made employees into owners sooner
It took us a year to implement an Employee Stock Option Program (ESOP). We said it was coming, but it took longer than we thought & employees noticed. That didn’t help morale. Good news is we’re rolling it out as we speak.
(28) Didn’t have an onboarding process
We’d hire people and just throw them off the high dive. Just an email or two about benefits and a Slack login. ¯_(ツ)_/¯ . Getting *much* better here. t.co/9uOEZXHq6P
(29) Didn’t productize processes for staff
We thought we could PM ourselves. Guess what? We could not PM ourselves. Since we invested in PM late, we didn’t create repeatable processes internally. That led to confusion. Fixed this. Live and die by our PMs now. t.co/iLWNKDsOfe
(30) Didn’t transition elegantly between BD and Engagement
The person who has the best relationship with the prospective client isn’t always going to be the person who manages the project day-by-day. We knew this, but didn’t create an elegant hand-off process. Addressed this.
(31) Didn’t always have the hard conversations with clients
Projects are relationships. The more you communicate, the more your expectations are aligned with reality. Scope affects timing. Timing affects cost. We have these talks constantly now. Constant improvement. t.co/ifAdh7UbO6
(32) Didn’t “get to useful” quickly enough
One of our guiding mantras is “get to useful quickly”. Useful is the point where our work is in market & we see market feedback & iterate. In the early years, we didn’t structure our engagements to get to useful quickly enough.
(33) Didn’t maintain the right relationship throughout the engagement
Sometimes, the ground shifts beneath you. We’ve gotten better at recognizing changes within our clients and adjusting our engagement strategies accordingly. t.co/VjFJuHs486
(34) Took too long to define a cohesive message
We knew who we were, but our clients didn’t. Clients would have difficulty telling others in their org what we could do for them! We’ve addressed, and recognize this as an area that will require constant vigilance.
(35) Kept an ugly web site
Our web site was ugly. Wasn’t a big deal when business relied on word of mouth. But it succcckkkked once we tried to market ourselves. Fixed this. Better reflection of who we are now. Also realize it will continue to change as we evolve and grow. t.co/15I8xX8aZu
(36) Didn’t create fun side projects!!
What were we thinking! The fun at an agency is being surrounded by creative people who love to work on creative projects. This year we institutionalized making the types of fun projects & ideas that got us here in the first place…
That includes our annual project holiday client gifts for clients. This last one was called Beernola…
ok good lord that was a long ass Phantom Thread
If you’ve read this far, you’re clearly a student of building responsible, sustainable, and creative businesses. We’re hiring in San Francisco, New York, and Rochester.
You have expert storytelling skills and bottomless ideation power. You enjoy developing non-obvious and highly effective concepts, schemes, and models that are tack-it-to-the-fridge impressive.
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