Insights

How does an agency substantially improve their performance and success?

We interviewed agency heads from a range of different types of agencies: creative/advertising, media, digital, healthcare, design, events, PR and communications. They had all turned their business around from under-performance to astounding results.

The report, “Survivor to Thriver”, is a collaboration between Kingston Smith (the accountants) and myself, Chris Merrington of Spring 80:20. Our different perspectives made the interviews, and distilling the essence from the interviews, all the more fascinating.

Over the coming weeks and months I will share different topics from the report, “Survivor to Thriver”. Here is the first topic.


Don’t just say it – do it.

This was about the culture of the agency and especially the culture of the senior team. In nearly half of the Thriver agencies there was a new director (MD or NED). They had a new set of eyes not wedded to the previous approach which makes it easier to both stop and start doing things differently.

The Thriver senior team found time to work ON the business, not just IN the business. This is vital. It’s about stepping back on a regular basis to give yourself time to really think about the critical aspects of the agency such as the direction of the agency, profitability, which clients to prioritise, where you want the agency to be in 3-5 year’s time, how you grow the business and your people….

The day to day running of an agency CAN be all-consuming and take up every available moment of the senior team. The day to day is like quick-sand sucking you downwards into the detail. Yet it’s so important to prioritise the thinking and planning.

The culture, values, methodology and approach of the Thriver agencies were more firm and defined leading to a fresh confidence. It wasn’t a case of paying lip-service or spouting platitudes. Their values are real, not just words on a wall. They were lived and breathed daily by the whole agency. In fact they were often developed by the whole agency rather than ‘imposed’ by the senior management team.

Culture cascades down, not up. If you say one thing and do another then don’t be surprised if your team are confused. They need to see consistency between what’s said by senior management and what’s done by senior management.

We also got a very strong sense that Thriver agencies were more prepared to take tough decisions quicker. (rather than waiting till there is no option but to take that ‘brave’ decision – when in fact it stops being a brave decision! It’s now a ‘fait a complis’) Taking tough decisions is rarely going to be easy. Often the longer we wait before taking a tough decision the worse the situation becomes. Hoping a problem resolves itself is generally a waste of time.

One surprising, yet very welcome, action taken by one of the Thriver agencies was not to pitch if the client’s procurement department were involved in the pitch! I love that level of bravery. If you’re wondering how clients responded to being told the agency wouldn’t pitch if procurement were involved I will reveal in a future article in this series from the report “Survivor to Thriver”.


How do agencies that had previously been struggling manage to turn their fortunes around? Some others had been doing ‘good enough’ but then decided ‘good enough’ was no longer ‘good enough’ and stretched out for real success. Unfortunately, there is no secret sauce as such, but there are specific ingredients we observed that might go into that sauce. Many of those ‘ingredients’ are quite simple but that doesn’t make them easy to implement. (A press-up is probably the simplest exercise one can do, but that doesn’t make it easy)

The agency marketplace has got tougher for most and is highly competitive. Many agencies are seeing revenue growth whilst at the same time seeing a decline in profitability. This is obviously a worrying trend.


 

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