On this episode of THRIVE — sponsored by Workamajig — Kelly and fellow agency growth consultant, Jeff Meade focuses on what will be most important for agency leaders to think about as we head into a new year.
EP 84:Ensuring Stability for Digital Agencies
Kelly: So welcome back everybody to this week's episode of Thrive, your agency resource. Today we're talking about getting more strategic in 2021. I think we could all use a little bit of that. We're talking about the practices in our agency that just cannot be ignored. We can't bury our heads in the sand. And today, I'm talking with Jeff Meade, who runs Mead, which is a management consulting firm that works with mid-sized marketing agencies just like yours. Welcome to the show my friend. I'm so excited for you to be here.
Jeff: Thank you. Thank you for having me. Glad to be here.
Kelly: So this show has been a little project and progress in the making.
Kelly: What a year, this year has been 2020, just kind of was that wave that swallowed us up, and we dove back into the sea and got turned around again. So interesting. So with all that's happened in the last 10 months, we don't have to rehash that. Everybody listening or watching knows exactly what I'm talking about.
Kelly: There's actually been a lot of things, though, that have just naturally fallen to the wayside. There's no shame in it. It's just what happened for all of us.
Kelly: So now that we've been through a couple rounds of getting kicked around a little bit and we know full well that those things are not going away. Right?
Kelly: How can we actually start to get more strategic for next year?
Jeff: That's a good question. Right? It seems like as you look out onto 2021, I was with an eye doctor the other day, and when I think about this, it's almost like that fuzzy focus, an eye doctor saying, “Which looks better? A or B?” And you're like, kind of the same, but do it again. And, that's what 2021 feels like. It's starting to come into this fuzzy focus where you kind of been beat up, you got back up, got beat down, got back up, and now you kind of see the landscape. And so you're saying, alright, now I have a sense of what's going on. Right? I know, generally, when people might come back into the office. There's talks of when the vaccine might widely be available. So now you can start saying, okay, what do we look like in this new landscape? Is the stuff that we were doing in 2019 the stuff that we pieced together in 2020? Is that still going to work in 2021? And really start saying, who do we want to be moving forward? Thinking about being more strategic, this is that time of year where Kelly, I'm sure you've gone through it with your agencies is now is when everybody's planning. Pandemic or not, this is when we would have been thinking about the New Year. And we've been putting together all those big, hairy, audacious goals of all this stuff we're going to do. I think now we can start doing it. But the difference is, now we can start saying, what do we want to look like? Like, now we can force ourselves to say, okay, now's a good time as ever. We've been beat up so much. How do we start to make the company look like the company we've always wanted it to be? I think with this crisis, this pandemic, it's forced us. Many of the things that we didn't want to do, whether it was a we can set up a location in that city, oh, well, now we see that we can, it can happen real easily. So I think what many people realize, and I've seen it is a lot of the stuff that we kept putting off, we'll get to that. Now you can look at that and say, oh, you know what, this is the landscape where we can start to take some risk, and see what sticks.
Kelly: So what I'm hearing you saying also, the way that I interpret it is that there's a mindset shift that we kind of wanted to happen, but it sort of happened for us, right? So this mindset shift of like, oh, I can't do that, like looking at all the reasons why something can't happen or won't happen or won't be able to happen. As opposed to looking at those limitations. We’re thrown into like, oh, it's happening. I guess I better get on board, right?
Kelly: Like how important do you think is the continuation of that kind of mindset, that like there are no limits mindset, that abundance mindset? How important is that going to be, not just going into next year, but continuing through into the future, right? Because in my experience, like this is a choice. This comes down to a choice. Your mindset is a choice. We can continue to choose fear, scarcity, limitation, or optimism like innovation, opportunity, abundance, how important is embodying that in 2021 and beyond.
Jeff: I think it’s huge. I think many people as tough as it was to get here, many people are saying, wow, this is the mindset that I've always wanted. And I think we see it professionally and you see it personally. Anybody who's gone through a personal crisis and this is the time where you start saying, it's now or never. Like, you're kind of forced. I mean, I think about even kind of personally, like I remember having a health scare. And I, for the longest time, I kept saying, oh, you know what? I should lose a little weight. And then when you get that, when you hit with a crisis, you're like, oh, I better do it now or else. And I think that's what many people have felt. It's like, now is the time or else I have to walk away from this? Do I truly want to grow an agency? Do I truly want to run an agency? And now is when you have to look at yourself in the mirror and say, is this something that I want to do? And if the answer is yes, I think you have to take that mindset and lean into it. Well, this is what I have to do to accomplish these goals. No longer can I push things to the wayside.
Kelly: And hope that everything's just going to magically happen one day.
Kelly: I think that's good. I think that's a good foundation of like what we've been through, the mindset that we've always wanted, it's here, we can now actually embrace it, embody it. But now let's get down to like brass tacks. When you work with your clients, you work with them using what you call score cards.
Kelly: So many agencies are using probably up to 15 different metrics out there. But we can't look at 15. Right?
Jeff: No, you can’t.
Kelly: Like, the reality is that this is back to the mindset, like, if you really want to be serious about things, you have to have consistency. Right?
Kelly: So if you want change to be sustainable and consistent, we have to narrow down what we're looking at in terms of these goals. So can you talk a little bit about like, the five things, maybe not the 15, but 5 that you really say like, the other ones have importance, they have value, but these 5 are like non-negotiable? What are those for you?
Jeff: Right. Yeah, I think for me now, and it's usually I think, if I look at different agencies, sometimes I may drop one or two, but for the most part, what I'm seeing now, is that I'm putting in everybody's scorecard is motivation. That's the first one I'm putting in. And the reason I put it in, is because I think what we're seeing now is when people are stuck at home, and, boy, we've been stuck at home for a long time, right?
Kelly: Yeah. And we'll be, we will be for a while.
Jeff: Exactly. I think if we're listening to the news, when it's all said and done, we will have been at home for more than 12 months, right? And so what starts to happen as you start, people start becoming demotivated, it's hard to see the big picture. And so the first metric I usually like putting on the scorecard is just, what does motivation look like? Are my people motivated? Do I need to give them a challenge? I often say, and there's research to support it that people that work in agencies, knowledge workers, they're like folks who volunteer for an organization. And so the big thing is, they need to have purpose, right? And so, are you bringing purpose to the job and that was easy when everybody was coming to the office. But now when you're at home, and you fire up your zoom, and then you're talking for about 30 minutes, and then you get off, and then you do the work and, then you're trying to figure out how to do stuff with your kids and your family on the same roof, you start losing the big picture and it becomes really tactical. I think that's what we started seeing, that people just their mindset becomes really tactical. Alright, I have to do a, b and c. I have to make lunch for my kids. And so they do that. And I think now is really pulling back and saying, how can we keep people motivated? So that's one.
Kelly: Before you go into the second one, I just want to build on that for a second, or just highlight how important that is. Because I'm seeing the same thing. And I think we have to remember, we have to like go back to a little bit of analog. I said this the other day, like innovation going forward might actually look like going backward. And I don't mean back to the way that we were doing things. I mean, not relying so much on the shiny things. So getting back to basics. Yes, it's about purpose and fulfillment and all of those things. I feel like we forget sometimes as agency leaders that like we don't sell products. The thing that people are buying from us are our people, right? It's the not the people themselves but the brainpower, the thought, the strategy, the enthusiasm, they're buying all of this. And so if we don't take care of the thing that we're actually “selling”, I think we're missing the whole point.
Jeff: Yeah. I mean, you hit it. People are our greatest asset. And if you're not taking care of that asset. It's not like other businesses where we're worried about property, plants, and equipment. It's people. If the people are not happy, if they're not motivated, we're not creating the best product.
Kelly: Yeah. And if your product, your “supply chain” has all the reason in the world to leave, right? Like there are a lot of people who are jumping ship. They’re starting to realize that this time gives them that introspective quality to say, you know what, do I really love working for this company? Am I being seen, heard, understood? Am I valued? Like, I don't have to take this. I could go anywhere. I can literally work anywhere now. I think that's just like, again, back to this mindset of like valuing people, it might feel analog, it might feel like a simplistic thing to say. But I think people that are not really, really understanding that and, again, embodying that and running their companies that way, they're going to be in for a rude awakening if they haven't already been this year.
Jeff: Yeah, no, I completely agree. Completely.
Kelly: So sorry to say.
Jeff: No, that was perfect.
Kelly: I was just getting on my little soapbox.
Jeff: That was awesome. What else I look at scorecards right now is I'm looking at hours of professional development per employee. And the reason that we're looking at that is, I think when you have a scorecard, and not a scorecard that has 15, 20, sometimes people are just measuring too many things. But when we have a tight scorecard, it really sends a signal to what matters to everyone in the organization. And if you're measuring it, then people know that you care about it. The same way that you would measure profitability or revenue that people see, oh, we're actually tracking our ability to make sure that I'm learning new skills. I think that's important. So in many ways, this sends a signal. And, there's not really a benchmark of best practice, but I like to put it on this so you can start tracking to see. Are we really developing our talent? Far too often people in agencies just say, I'm not learning anything, or no one prepared me for this. If you don't come in with the skills, you don't get upskilled at all. So I have that and then also, I put recurring business ratio. And that's especially important this time around. It is because I want people to start looking at saying, what business are we going to have, if we don't do anything else, just to set a floor, so that you know, alright, this is what our revenue will be next year. At that revenue we should hit this profitability. So this is my baseline. That means if nothing else I can afford this staff. So really just focusing on that, then I think profitability always has to be on there, and I go profitability by client. I think oftentimes, we'll look across the agency and say, alright, this was a good year. We hit 20% profitability. But I think sometimes you may have a client that's bringing in 35% and another that's bringing in 5%. And really, why I'm trying to force people to look at it is just to make sure that they're on some clients who are dragging you down. And I'm not telling anybody to do anything crazy like fire a client right now. We've lost way too many clients. But really just see where you're leaking money, to see how you can really bring that client up.
Kelly: Yeah. And, also, I think it's important to say, you’re not advising anyone to necessarily, let go of any clients right now.
Kelly: But the little asterisk is right now. Right?
Kelly: We have to manage cash flow and make sure that we're investing in our people. We need money to do that. But if the trend continues, where one particular client or two particular clients are much lower on the profitability, and the accounts aren't great to work on, we're over servicing, maybe the clients are not treating our employees well, whatever the case may be. I still think it's important to have in the back of your mind or written down somewhere, what those clients, which clients those would be, the day that we're able to replace them. So sometime next year, you're probably going to get a client that is more ideal than this one that's kind of in the bottom of the barrel. And you want to know which ones are sort of, right on that chopping block. I would then add on top of that, it's not so much about just letting them go, but not leaving money on the table, maybe you have a strategic partner that you can refer them over to, and get a finder's fee or ongoing commission for a year, whatever the case may be. I think that's what it is. When you talk about strategy or being strategic, it's not just about bringing in. It's also about realizing that you want to uplevel those clients.
Jeff: So right. Yeah, I completely agree. And I think once you put that asterisk next to some of those clients, that then allows you to say, okay, these guys on the chopping block, is there any other reason that we would keep them around, and maybe that reason is, boy, they sure do look good on our client list. Or when we get back to a world where we're networking, we always drop their name, and people get excited. But the point really is, let's just be strategic. But first and foremost, you don't want to pay for the privilege of having anyone as a client. You don't want to lose any money. And then, I'd say to round out my top five, that last one is inclusion. And I think just looking at this current landscape, there's a lot of diversity metrics, and some are easier than others. But really, with inclusion, it's really just about how do you make sure that your employees are bringing their whole self to work. I think that's the one that's really tough. And unfortunately, far too many people aren't bringing their whole selves to work. And it's really tough to measure. I actually found a survey tool that's pretty good. And I can put a link up for your listeners so they can get that.
Kelly: Yeah, I can. I'll put that into the show notes later.
JJeff: Perfect. But what it does is really just show you, across your organization are people feeling included in the organization, and it has some questions like I can express my opinion here without repercussion, and for many people, that's huge. And many people across many groups don't feel that way. And another question that has is I believe management respects everyone equally. So it's really just about, hey, do I feel included in this? And, do people value what I bring to the table? So that's really what I have in the scorecard right now that I think people should be focusing on going into 2021.
Kelly: I love the scorecard because this is not, I mean, let's be honest. Three, four, or five years ago, some of those things would not be on that scorecard.
Jeff: No, I got laughed out in the room.
Kelly: Yeah. So I think this is a positive thing. This is incredibly positive. This is like if we all want to create the lives, the teams, the businesses, and like the world that we ultimately, I'm assuming we all want to see. I think the scorecard is brilliant. I think it's great.
Jeff: Thank you.
Kelly: I do want to talk a little bit more about the idea of inclusion, though, because, again, we're here. We're having potentially a little bit of an uncomfortable conversation, which I love to dive into. And the reality is that up until 2020, diversity and equity, consciousness and inclusion, all of those things were what I would consider an HR afterthought. So for the agency owners or leaders who have brought this into their awareness, because they didn't have another option. And they want to shift from diversity being an HR afterthought to prioritizing diversity as a core value. What would you say they should keep in mind as they start to shift in their organizations?
Jeff: I would say when I saw this kind of playing out a couple months ago, in many ways, and what I'm speaking about is just what was happening racially across racial lines. Inclusion includes racism and a lot of other things, but across racial lines, I saw a lot of people saying, man, I see our leaders saying things, and kind of saying that they are allies, but I don't see anything changing at home. I don't see anything changing in our organization. So one advice I say is really kind of sit down with folks and say, what's broken internally that we can fix, right? Let's just start at home before we make these platitudes about how we're gonna play a part in the age of landscape of solving, is what's broken internally. And I think what that does is everybody brings their perspective. And so some people may intuitively just say, hey, we got to get better at just project management, that may be one tactical approach. But then other people who are if you're forcing people saying, hey, I want you to look at this, and bring in thoughts of diversity, thinking about it from an inclusive perspective, you're going to have other people bring their own opinions and say, there's no groups for folks like me. Or you may have somebody say, I'm the only woman that works here, right? But you want to have those conversations, and you want to include people. But I think the other thing you want to do is, now say, how do we start solving this and everybody plays a part in how we solve this? I think that brings purpose into the organization where instead of you just kind of at your computer being really tactical, you can now say, wow, this is what we're going to work on and this is the part that I'm going to play and working on that. I think that's really huge. And I'm seeing that that's really helping folks where you just say, you know what, I don't have all the answers. But I think collectively, we do a good job of solving problems. We're super creative. Let's just sit down and think about what we can fix. What can we fix internally, and then it gives everybody a mission to focus on. You get buy in.
Kelly: Yeah, I love so much of what you just said. My favorite thing is that as the leader, I think we really need to drive home the idea that it's okay, and actually really beneficial for you to be able to say, I don't have all the answers, like to me, that is like the most courageous and most beneficial statement that you can make as a leader. I don't have all the answers. I can't fix it. And nor is it a leader’s job to solve all the problems or to fix it.
Kelly: And somehow we have gotten down this path where we believe that leadership is equated with being the one who solves everything. Just as no matter who you voted for, like whoever was going to become our new president. Nobody was going to, well, one person or no two people, no duo was going to fix the problems. Right? It's all of us.
Kelly: So I think like this shift in understanding that inclusion and diversity is not about just feeling a couple of different seats at the table so that your conference room or your zoom meetings now look like a rainbow.
Jeff: Right. Not at all.
Kelly: The point is… and I think, really, that's what the HR afterthought was all about, in my opinion. It was like, how does this look good? When we go to our about page on our website, are there lots of like black, brown Asian, like is that would it looks like. And maybe that's the way that we can sort of show or prove that we care about this.
Kelly: If that's what the thought was, there's no shame in that. But we can't continue under the same guys.
Jeff: Yeah. It's so true.
Kelly: Yeah. The whole idea of like, the voices at the table. I think what I really loved also about what you said is like, having those conversations to say, what's wrong? Dialing up curiosity is my favorite way of talking about it. Like, let's all get curious. What’s not working for you? What is working for you?
Jeff: Yeah. And I think the key to that too is that we can fix, right? Let's not make the problem so huge.
Kelly: It's overwhelming.
Jeff: Yeah, that we can't fix but what can we as a group fix, and I think it piques people's curiosity. But then also it's, well, what can we do? And, it could be as simple as something with a local organization. But who knows, and I think it's unique to every agency, but people come with some great ideas. And collectively, you're all working to change something. And that's huge.
Kelly: Yeah. And at the end of the day, this is what I would call like a triple impact, right? Like, if you really value the perspectives of every single person on your teams, whether they're internal, you bring in some contractors, consultants, whatever the situation may be. If you really value all of that, then what's going to end up happening is your work is going to be more effective, right? Because you've got every perspective at the table. You're not going to let anything slip through the cracks. You're not going to have a situation where you have like the Pepsi commercial that everybody was up in arms about, right? Or the T-shirt in that one catalog.
Kelly: So the whole point is like the work is more effective, right? And so what happens when you have more effective work? Your clients stay longer. You don't have as much client attrition. Your clients now become your brand advocates, and they refer people that are equal to them.
Kelly: So they're referring more ideal clients. People are more invested in staying there because the work is good. They’re feeling fulfilled. They feel like they're part of something. You’re gonna have less employee attrition.
Kelly: It's just like this whole idea of like money follows value. If we invest in our people for the right reasons, it's only going to bring us back to the profitability. But it's hard sometimes to make that connection. And I think that's kind of what we're talking about. In this case, it's like, how do we get more strategic, but at the end of the day, we're saying, if we value our people more, the trickle effect is going to make us more profitable.
Jeff: Yeah, you hit the nail on the head. I mean, I think being strategic is really just valuing your greatest assets, which is your people. How do you make sure that they can bring more to the table, and that they want to bring more to the table and that they're motivated to bring more to the table. As agency owners, you're motivated by the fact that your agency is growing, that you're creating really cool work, but someone you hire, they want to make sure that they have a story to tell. So you want to make sure that their story aligns with your story. And I think the only way to do that is get everybody in the room and now is the right time to really get everybody in a room and say, all right, what do we have to fix? And like I said, in many ways, a lot of things will come out, you'll get the diversity and inclusion stuff because you want to force people say, hey, I want all of this. I want the uncomfortable stuff to come up to. But then you'll get just the business stuff like, okay, yeah, we need to get better with our billables, accounts payable, all that stuff. But it happens when everybody has a seat at the table, and everybody is comfortable speaking up, and knowing that they will be heard.
Kelly: Yeah, to me, this is like the most important conversation of the year almost, because it's like what have we been able to boil down from everything that we have learned introspectively with our agencies, with our teams. What have we learned this year? Like if we don't learn something from this entire experience between the racial revolution, the pandemic, the election, the divisiveness, like if we don't come out of this, learning more about how to connect deeper and how to grow sustainably, like it’s all for nothing.
Kelly: Strategy to me is like, how do we implement what we've learned and actually just make it more actionable? And it doesn't just stop like, yes, we're talking about this in the context of like getting more strategic for 2021. But that's just like a soundbite for a title. We're talking about getting more strategic for the rest of our lives. We're talking about committing to being better, to valuing people more, to valuing relationships, whether those are our clients, or spouses or team members. Yeah, I get a little excited about this.
Jeff: No, I love it. I love how you summarize the two. I mean, I think really thinking about being strategic for 2021, as we've seen in everything that has happened is now you know what to do, right? So what's preventing you from doing it? Like you have in the conversations, now, let's do something about it. You've done the hard work of still having an agency after all of this because many people can’t say the same. So if you've gone through that, now, it's just like, what do we have to do next? And I think this is a time where you kind of bring everyone around and say, what's our next challenge? Okay, let's do it.
Kelly: Yeah. So, as we start to wrap up, I guess I would just ask the question, and again, it might be a little difficult to answer. But for those agencies that are really struggling, like, yes, they've made it through 2020. But they're really struggling, they were relying on some of the funding that has dried up, we don't know what's going to happen with that going forward yet. And they're struggling to maintain their client relationships. Maybe they're seeing some of those drop off even towards the end of the year now. Maybe they're having to lay off a couple of people right before the holidays, which is also kind of hard. But the ones that are really kind of right on that edge, what would you say to them in terms of looking ahead and going into 2021?
Jeff: Yeah, that's a great question. I would say really, this is a time where you have to focus on what you're great at. And I don't mean it as some big ego thing, but what I'm saying is what I see a lot of agency has done before 2020 was kind of bolt on these additional services, right? You're working with a client and they say, oh, we need some help with social media. And so then you staff up and hire some folks. And then that client is gone. And you're trying to figure out how to allocate that person. And so what I'm saying is, what are you really great at? And maybe it comes back to a position in conversation, right? And so really just double down on what you're great at and focus there. Here's a good example. Like, I have an agency, they're really good with events. I think they're one of the best in the country. And, of course, I'm saying that because they’re one of my clients.
Kelly: We’re all bias when we talk about our clients.
Kelly: It’s okay.
Jeff: So they do amazing live events, and 2020 has been tough, but I think what they've done really well is that they move the conversation away from live events to experiences. And so really, they're helping their clients really think through how do we create these experiences digitally? And how do we think about how do we move out of this pandemic? So I've seen them, they've taken a hit, because there's just no live events, but they're really starting to go deeper into what does it mean to create a brand experience? So really experimenting with stuff online. So that was the course. So I would say to those agencies really just figure out what that core is. And, how can it play out based on the way the landscape is. Do you have to do more stuff digitally? But I think it's paring back some stuff that you're not really great at. And that's where we have to be honest with ourselves.
Kelly: I was just gonna say that.
Jeff: Yeah, we do it, but we're not great at it. I think you really have to pare that stuff away, and to say, alright, we're gonna double down here, when someone says, I want you to come speak here, they’re asking me to come speak, because I'm an expert. Or if you're writing a thought piece, like what is that and focus on that. That would be my advice.
Kelly: Yeah. And that goes back to your scorecard, right? Work hard about like, looking at the profitability of each client, I would look at that as maybe the profitability of each service. That was actually one of the things that I looked at, at my former agency, and it caused us to get really honest with ourselves and say, you know what? We don't want to do social media anymore. It's a thing that for us, there are tons of agencies out there that specialize in social media marketing and management. For us, it didn't make any sense. Because when we looked at the profitability of each service, month after month, it was breakeven. And if you're a breakeven, what are you doing? Like, that's not why you're in business. So we created a strategic partnership with a social media agency. That's all they did. And then we transitioned each of our clients over to it. So I think that's great advice, because getting back down to what you're great at, what your core is. So we can talk about that in terms of core values, core services, whatever it may be, get back down to that, because that's really where you're going to connect.
Kelly: That's where you have the history, the deep expertise. And if you had any question mark in your positioning, now it becomes a lot easier.
Kelly: Yeah. So not that we're trying to be cliché and always have everything come back to position. But the reality is that if you are struggling, and you're trying to extend yourself into multiple places, you basically become all things to all people, which means that you're nothing to everyone.
Jeff: Yeah. Right. Exactly. And when everybody's budget is tight, no one's going for the generalists. You want the experts because you're not going to have a second chance. You got to get it right the first time.
Kelly: Right. Well, Jeff, this is an amazing conversation. I knew it would be. I'm really, really grateful to have you in my life and that we were able to have this discussion and I think it'll be really valuable for a lot of agency owners. So thank you.
Jeff: Yeah, absolutely. Ditto and thank you for having me on. It was great speaking with you and your audience.