EP 97: Intentional Agency Trajectory with Chip Griffin
KELLY: So welcome to Thrive your agency resource, I'd like you all to meet Chip Griffin, if you don't know him already, founder of the Small Agency Growth Alliance, also known as SAGA. Chip is actually a fellow coach and consultant to PR and marketing agencies, essentially around the country, and really works with the same constituency that I do, which is, small agencies that have approximately up to about 30 employees. And we recently met through a mutual connection, and I had to have him on the show. So Chip, thank you so much for joining me today. I'm really excited that you're here.
CHIP: It's great to be here Kelly. We had a great pre-show conversation, and I'm really looking forward to this one.
KELLY: Yeah. So I know, and the audience knows how I got into this industry just from repetitive conversations with other guests. But I'm always curious to understand a little bit more about how other agency growth consultants and coaches kind of made it into this industry because we all have our own unique story. So I'd love to hear yours.
CHIP: Sure. So about 30 years ago, I got started in politics in Washington, DC.
KELLY: I’m sorry.
CHIP: Yes, well, that was a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away. And in any case, after I spent some time on Capitol Hill, I went to work for a very small PR agency. And so that was my first taste of agency life about 27 years ago now. And over time, I went to one job after the other and eventually got married. And like most people who, when they decide to move and have been in politics, they say, well, I'm not unemployed. I'm a consultant. So I became a consultant in the late 1990s. I was fortunate to sign a client before I left DC, and landed in New Hampshire where I had my first agency that sort of grew by accident. And since then, I've started about a half dozen different businesses, took a side tour by selling one of the businesses to a company headquartered in Dubai. So I was Chief Operating Officer for a media intelligence agency headquartered there. And so, that's sort of where I was before becoming a consultant. And then when I decided that I was done working for someone else and wanted to get back to being an entrepreneur, I realized it was the business side of agency life. That was my real passion. And so now I'm fortunate to be able to work with small agency owners around the world to help them with their various business challenges.
KELLY: Yeah, that's great. There's something that you said that really stuck out for me because it's really one of the things that we're going to talk about today and focus on in our conversation. You said that you sort of grew the agency by accident. And I think that that's very true for a lot of agency owners. There's very little intention setting or intentionality when an agency owner has an idea of what they want to become in terms of the leader, size of the organization. We joked around earlier when we were pre-chatting about how the idea of a headcount used to be some sort of indication as to your success, right? And, luckily, we're no longer in that place for lots of different reasons. But what do you see a lot of agency owners are doing with regard to all of the information that's out there? Some of it is quite disparate, podcasts and articles and coaches and consultants and everything. What are you seeing in general that a lot of agency owners are doing?
CHIP: So most agencies started for one of two reasons. The one might be that they were unemployed like I was either by choice or because they've gotten laid off from somewhere. And so, they started doing a little bit of freelancing, and all of a sudden, they had more business than they could handle. So they started contracting work out to others and grew their agency that way. A second way is that maybe they were within an agency, and they were working for a big client, and they said, hey, I could do better if I took this agency out on my own, and somehow, they made it work without violating their employment agreement. And so, in either case, they're not really intentionally building the business. They're just starting with a little bit of revenue and growing from there. Unfortunately, most of them then decide that they just need to focus on continuing to grow. And when they say growth, they just mean revenue. More clients, more money, increase the retainers, and they never stop and pause and say, what am I trying to build as a business? What do I want as the agency owner? And that's a huge mistake. I mean, I always tell my clients and anyone else who listens. There's no reason to take on the risk and the stress of running your own business if it's not accomplishing what you want from it.
KELLY: Right. And I would imagine. And you know that what each individual agency owner wants from their business, what they want to get out of their organization and sort of being at the helm of that organization is very different.
KELLY: And there's nothing wrong with that. That's great, right? Like, as my dad says, that's why we have chocolate and vanilla ice cream. It's whatever those intentions, and whatever the driving forces, whatever your passions are, whatever the things are that get you excited and get you up every morning about that business. They're all fine. And I think what I'm starting to see is a very acute shift in the mindset. We're talking about intention today. But it's also a mindset around what I'm going to do with this business, making me as an individual happier? Am I also contributing to the, I guess I would call it the fulfillment of my team? Right? Do they feel seen, heard, understood, valued on a daily basis? People are starting to really make this shift toward people over profit. And, personally, I've been really waiting for this shift to happen. And it's been happening slowly but surely. But now, it's like, all anyone's talking about. So that's exciting. Are you seeing some of the same with your clients?
CHIP: Oh, absolutely. I mean, 2020 changed a lot for many people, but particularly in the agency space, and how they look at things. And I think that's a very good thing. Because before there was tremendous pressure to keep up with the Joneses. And, there was tremendous embarrassment for a lot of agency owners to say, yeah, I'm trying to build a lifestyle agency where I only have to work four days a week. I can have long weekends in the winter to snowboard, in the summer to go surfing, or whatever. And I think that a lot of that has not gone away. I mean, it's still there, for sure. But it is not the same way that it was a few years ago. And that's healthy. Because you may have a business that you want to just work as little as you can and still make the kind of money that you need to have the lifestyle you want, maybe you are looking to build something really big, because that's personally satisfying. Both are fine options. You need to figure out what's right for you. And by the way, that may change over the course of your life. Just because you're 30, and you really want to charge ahead and build this giant thing. Maybe you're 45 and you want to ease off. Or maybe it's the other way around, you're 30, you've got a family, so you can't push as hard. And now as you get older, you have the time. So go with what works for you and build the business around that.
KELLY: Yeah, I couldn't agree with that more. [Commercial] It's funny, I'm curious to know, if there's a single question or something, some kind of indication that potential clients give to you to let you know that they're an ideal client to work with you.
CHIP: So really, I'm looking for clients who are curious, I guess that's probably the best word. So they want to learn more. They're not coming to me saying I need this. And this is, if you can just give me this piece of, this nugget of knowledge, I'll be all set. I don't want someone who's coming to me looking for some magic formula that says, this is how you build a successful agency, follow these seven steps and you will become a millionaire. What I really want is someone who wants to learn and understand what works and what doesn't, how they can apply some principles to their business, but still build their own business out of that. So if I had to boil it down to that one word, curiosity would be the one I would focus on.
KELLY: Yeah, that's great. I love that one. For me, it's vulnerability. I literally ask, if you are coming to me and you want to become a more conscious agency owner, a more conscious business leader, how willing are you to be vulnerable to say to your team, you know what, I don't have all the answers, I actually need you to help me run this business. I've made mistakes, on and on and on, like vulnerability, vulnerability, vulnerability, and if that prospective client is all in from that standpoint, I'm like great, that's all I need to know. Because there's something really interesting in what you said before, which is, there has been a lot of stigma, and a lot of embarrassment around this idea that I don't necessarily want to build the biggest agency, right? I don't need to have 50 employees. I don't need to be a $10, $20, $30, $50 million agency. I just want to make enough where I'm making an impact with the clients, we're working with really ideal clients, those clients are making my team happy, because they're respectful and the work is good. That's the kind of business I want. And maybe, for me, that means that I get to spend more time with my family. I get to take some more vacations. I don't have to be in control all of the time. Like, I hear more and more and more people saying that and setting these intentions for, maybe I mean, maybe at the beginning of the year, they start to set these intentions, or maybe they say, these are my intentions over the next three to five years. It's refreshing. I guess that's the word that I will use. It is refreshing to see that that shift is really happening. I agree with you that it's not 100% better yet. It's not. It's very far away from 100%. But yeah, if you could speak to that a little bit, in terms of the conversations that you have with clients, that would be really interesting to me.
CHIP: Yeah. And I think you've really hit on something there by talking about vulnerability and being willing to be vulnerable with you with their teams. And, fundamentally, you learn more from failure than you do from success. And so, failure is something that I enjoy talking about. I've been on many number of panels with other entrepreneurs talking about some of the things we fail, and I find those conversations fascinating because success can be an accident success, can be just dumb luck, right place, right time. And certainly, some failures are the result of bad luck. But you can still learn things from it. You can learn how to be nimble and flexible coming out of any kind of challenge that you have. As I always tell people, half of my time is spent telling you what doesn't work, because I've done it. Over the course of 30 years, I've tried a lot of stuff, and I can just tell you, it doesn't work, or this is the thing to watch out for so that you don't do it the same way that I did and have the same problem.
KELLY: And a lot of that is your inherent value because I feel the same way. I'm like, I ran my agency for 14 years. I made a lot of mistakes, right? And sometimes I made them more than once. Like, don't do that. Learn from that.
CHIP: Right. And then look at I mean, sometimes, someone still has to stick their finger in the outlet. And as coaches and advisors, we can't stop them. We can tell them when we did that. It was not a comfortable feeling. But sometimes just like kids, they have to do it. And that's fine. But at least they have the opportunity to know about it in advance. And, it's their conscious decision to do that. And I think we talked about intentionality. I talked with my clients all the time about the importance of making conscious decisions, and not just allowing inertia to take you somewhere. Because so many of us just allow an inertia to pull us forward in both our personal and professional lives. And, it's so helpful to just pause and step back and say, is this the path I really want to be on? And if not, how do I move to a different path?
KELLY: Yeah. So is there a particular framework or a set of questions or something that you give to clients to say, hey, when you are thinking about setting your intentions, for what you want out of this business? As an individual, as the leader, is there some kind of framework or anything that you kind of utilize with them? Or is it just a conversation? Or how do you do that?
CHIP: So I mean, most of what I do is conversational. I do have questionnaires that I use sort of as a starting point when I'm first working with a client, but really, I mean, I've created what I call the AIM GET framework that I use with my clients. And so that's ambition, identity and management, growth, execution and talent. And so, again, ambition, identity management, so that's sort of the vision planning portion of the business, and then growth, execution and talent. So that's the more tactical, the day to day, how am I building and operating the business? And so, I always start with that ambition piece and try to understand where do you want to be in a year, five years? What's your thinking as far as, are you going to work until you die? Are you going to retire in the next five years? What are you trying to accomplish? Because that then helps give me that framework for the advice that I'm going to give and for the exercises we'll go through as we work through our relationship.
KELLY: Right. I think about that also as like, sort of reverse engineering from a future state. So if you could take this client, and you sit them in a seat 10 years down the road, what does their agency look like? What does their life look like? Where is their family? What is the whole picture? What does the whole landscape look like in their ideal future state world? And then reverse engineer that back t, okay, well, where are we today? And what needs to happen in that gap between today and the 10-year future state? I think sometimes giving people a couple of different ways or frameworks to think about these things helps to really narrow them, because I have found that if you say, what are you passionate about? What do you want out of this agency? A lot of people have a really hard time figuring out the answer to that question. Why do you think that is? Why do you think it's so hard for people to really set those intentions and have clarity around what they want?
CHIP: I think it's a couple of things. I think the first is that it's hard for people to be honest with themselves. I think that it starts from, what we were talking about a little while ago in this conversation, that people feel like there's a set of expectations that they're supposed to live up to, that they're supposed to be working towards. And, it's often hard for people to admit that maybe that's not their ambition, maybe that's not where they want to take things.
KELLY: So the societal pressure, you're saying, or like?
CHIP: Societal, family, and look, we all have it to one degree or another. And, sometimes it's important to have those. Otherwise, you might have chaos. So there is some value in having those overall guardrails to our lives. But we have to be willing to challenge them too. And we have to say, I mean, because, look, there are decisions that I make today with a wife and kids that I wouldn't make probably, if I didn't have a wife and kids, right? I mean, and that's okay. You have to be realistic about what you've got going on. And, the level of risk tolerance that you have, particularly as a business owner, and things like that. But that doesn't mean that you still can't try to enunciate the dream of where you would like to go. I think that the longer the horizon, the harder it gets. So when I sit down with an owner, and I say, okay, what do you want your business to look like at the end of the year? Or the end of next year? That's a lot easier than 5 or 10 years down the road. And I look, you can't get hung up on what your plan is for 10 years. You have to have a general vision. But if I look back 10 years, I would not say I was doing what I was doing today, but that's okay. Because you have to adjust based on the circumstances on the ground.
KELLY: Yeah, it's a great point. I mean, I laughed because if someone had told me, honestly, even seven years ago, that I would be doing leadership coaching for other agency owners, I would have laughed hysterically, like a belly laugh. There's no way that that’s what I'm going to be doing, and here I am. And then we have things like anomalies like 2020 where we could have had intentions set, we could have had plans and goals and all of those things. And then through no fault of our own, or nothing that we can control, those things fall apart, or something happens, where it's out of our control, and we just have to get back on the track, or change the trajectory of the track.
CHIP: And I don't know any agency that maintained their trajectory that they were in, in March of 2020. I mean, some for better, some for worse, but everybody had to make an adjustment. I mean, if you were a digital agency, and now you were going gangbusters, because everybody was trying to go from brick and mortar to digital. And so, most of the digital agencies I know just got swamped with work at that point. So it was good for them, but they still had to make adjustments to their operations, absolutely figure out how to do things. If you were in the travel industry, that was a tough sector for an agency to be serving at that time. And so, they had to make adjustments. And so, I think that at the end of the day, that's healthy, right? I mean, it's painful at the moment, trust me. And it was painful for my business because I was doing largely on-site engagements in March of 2020. Needless to say, nobody really wanted to meet with me on site, and I didn't want to go on site at that point. And so, you have to make adjustments, but that creates all sorts of new opportunities if you allow yourself to be open to it.