EP 66: Navigating Agency Life Transitions
Kelly: So welcome to this week's episode of Thrive. I'm here actually today with Annie Scranton, who’s the CEO of Pace PR in New York. We're chatting about the many transitions that agency owners face on a continuous basis whether that's personal, professional, and she's going to share her story about how she's actually been able to navigate them. These are some of my favorite conversations, real agency owners, real challenges and just being really transparent about what those things are that people are facing and then how we kind of come to resolve those and solve them. So Annie, it's great to see you again. Thank you so much for joining me on the show today.
Annie: Thank you for having me.
Kelly: So first of all congratulations on hitting your 10-year mark with the PR firm. That's amazing.
Annie: Thank you, thank you.
Kelly: So let's talk about this first, will call it the first transition of many with the agency where you actually went on maternity leave, how you kind of navigated that because that in and of itself is pretty challenging or could be and then we'll maybe dive into some of the issues about growing and scaling the team as a new mom with a brand new baby at home.
Annie: Yeah. So I would say that definitely having a baby was obviously like the biggest life change I've ever had but it certainly in the context of my business, it was absolutely the biggest moment where I just kind of felt like even though I did tons of crap beforehand I had just no idea like what it was going to be like and how things were gonna kind of shake out.
Kelly: How do you prepare for something like that, right?
Annie: Well, a client gave me a good advice. He said write down every single thing you do every single day for like a week or two straight and so I tried to do that so that way my two VPs would have a little, a look, a glimpse, into like sort of what my day to day was like. And before going on maternity leave, I really was acting like the CEO, the president, the founder, the CFO, I was doing like all of those roles, but I was very entrenched in like the day to day with the clients stuff. And so what I figured and what became true was that once I came back I was not gonna be able to be as entrenched in the day to day client work. So that was something I had to kind of relinquish in terms of like control which isn't easy, I don't think if you're an owner of an agency or a company.
Kelly: We tend to all be a little type A.
Annie: Exactly. But really what really was like so surprising and like the best way is that when I, I had so much anxiety about telling my clients I was pregnant and I would be out on maternity leave and they all surprised me, every single one of them was so happy for me, was like don't worry it'll be fine we'll figure it out or work with the others on your team and they truly meant it actually. And so I think that was something that I had underestimated because being in the service industry you're there to serve and so you're not really there to take time off and not to be working but I think for my clients particularly those who are parents themselves I think they understood it and I guess believed in me and believed in the foundation of what we were doing and I should say I only I only took like two months where I was fully off. So it was not a long maternity leave and then I came back slowly like sort of couple of days a week until I hit five months and that was when I came back from maternity leave sort of right after the holidays.
My experience was that the first few months after maternity leave or after I had my daughter actually went really, really well because I was still working right up until the day I gave birth. I had lots of planning meetings with my senior staff about how they were going to fill in the gaps and what was most important etcetera. And I really was able to just enjoy my daughter and not worry about work for two months which was awesome and everybody should do that a hundred percent because you never get that time again. And it was really wonderful and then dipping my toe back in like a couple days a week was good. It was definitely like one of the benefits of being a founder and owning an agency. It is just sort of write your own path back in after. So that was really good.
But then going back full time was really hard and it was hard I think because I felt really lost like in terms of what my role was now at the company. It’s been running really smoothly while I was gone and so I came back and I was like, alright, what am I doing here, like what’s my purpose. And then I realized what it was, was that, the one component that I hadn't been doing that nobody else was really doing was keeping up the new business relationships like getting new business is not really a skill you can teach somebody. It's just sort of I think innate and probably something that all owners or agency founders are good at. That's why we started our own agencies because we had a pipeline into potential clients. And so I realized that when I was sort of reviewing the Q1 numbers after I had just come back and they were not as strong as the previous year and that was the first year in nine years in business at that point that that had ever happened to me.
Kelly: That was just last year?
Annie: That was just last year. Yeah. Almost exactly a year ago and that really freaks me out because I had always been on this slow trajectory up and now we were like looking to maybe just break even with the year before. And so that was a big realization for me. Running the day to day and keeping the current clients happy and sort of keeping up with that work, my team totally expertly handled but having sort of foresight to keep the company growing was something that I wasn't in the headspace to do while I was enjoying my new baby and that was sort of the first big challenge of 2019, figuring out okay what are we going to do here to keep growing.
Kelly: Yeah, so it's interesting one of the things that you said early on was that you had all of this anxiety about telling the clients, right?
Kelly: So that anxiety I'm imagining was coming from a place of like are they going to think that I'm incompetent, are they going to look at our agency as less valuable, would there potentially be some attrition because of this, was that all of the underlying feeling of that anxiety?
Annie: All of it. Yes, a hundred percent. And also being the one who primarily signs the bulk of a new business, the bulk of the clients, many of our clients want me. They want me involved. They want to talk to me. They wanna make sure I'm working on their accounts. And my staff is tremendous but there’s still that connection and so yes I was very worried about, would they feel like they weren’t getting their money's worth if they couldn't get me on the phone. Would they feel like their account wasn't going as strong if I wasn't actively pitching them to producers and different media?
And then just from my own perspective before I started my agency ten years ago, I always worked in a corporate culture. I was at various TV networks, like Fox, CNN, MSNBC and I remember being younger like in my twenties and seeing people take their maternity leave and then realizing okay now the bulk of the work they were doing is going to fall onto me and feeling like I mean I was so naive at the time but feeling sort of like well this isn't fair. Now I have all this extra work to do so I was worried about my staff too like feeling like they weren't feeling supported because I was out. So yeah, it was a lot of anxiety but one of my clients actually who I had a conversation with about it really like put my fears at ease and he said, Annie, people are going to be happy for you, you work really hard like you have the right connections, you're doing things the right way like people will support you. And I did find that to be true.
Kelly: Yes, so all of the potential like that story or that narrative that you created that this was going to be devastating for the clients and it was going to impact the employees like none of that was actually true. It was all just coming up out of the sphere of like if I'm not involved like everything's gonna go and fall by the wayside.
Annie: Totally. And like my ego was a little bruise because I was like oh, like okay everything's going fine. I wasn't even needed here for the past few months.
Annie: I say that jokingly but there was a little bit of that, real feeling in there, and it was an adjustment like for sure but my mom always says to me, she's like, whatever you're worried about it's not going to be that thing that happens to you; it's gonna be something else.
Kelly: Or nothing.
Annie: Or nothing. Exactly. But I'm a worrier and so I always think something's gonna happen. But for me, it was not the operational side or the client side or even the staff side, it was really just continuing the growth of the business. I mean I didn't have the foresight. I don't know if I even could have for that being the one thing that I needed to pay attention to.
Kelly: Yeah, but that's also really self-aware that you said yeah my ego was a little bruised like I used to have sort of control over almost every nuance of this business, right?
Kelly: Hand in clients, leading the team, developing culture, new business, like all of these things and so when you step back in and everything sort of running aside from new business, but everything else is sort of running smoothly without you, you're like wait now you said I felt lost. There's also like for me what natural extensions of that is, there's a little bit of loneliness and there's a little bit of question about purpose which you mentioned so it's like how did you get over that, how did you transition back in and sort of redefined what your purpose was and then get over that challenge of not necessarily prior to that only focusing on new business and now you're in this place where that's what the agency needs and that's what your primary focus, like how did you manage that transition.
Annie: I mean, to be honest with you I'm still managing it. I honestly, sometimes I do, I'll have conversation my husband something like I don't know what I'm doing, like what is it am I supposed to be doing right now. But when I came back from maternity leave, it was even harder because I was getting used to not seeing my daughter from nine to five every day. I was nursing. At the times I was pumping in the office. Forget it, like that was a whole other life challenges. It was hard because I was feeling sort of like I was feeling at home, feeling in the office and it wasn't easy. What did I do to get over it? I think somebody just told me another piece of good advice was to spend your time doing what only you can do and not what others on your team can do.
And so on that is where I tried to really dive then in terms of new business of course, just like oversight generally speaking of how the company was working and flowing, hiring, like that was something where my resume senior team was knee deep in, in the day to day work. I was like okay I'll take on the responsibility of actively hiring and doing these interviews. And now I think, my role it's harder to define because there's not like I'm always thinking about how to keep growing and scaling my company and what are more services that we can offer to clients and how can we implement that without burdening the staff that we currently have and it's hard because I before I had Rose, my daughter, every day I feel like I could do like a checklist of like every single thing I needed to do and I got it done and here's how I made the clients happy.
Like now when you say okay I'm working on how to scale the business like I don't know it's more like nebulous. It's more like I need to just spend time thinking and talking to people and whatever and it kind of comes in more of like an abstract way. And it's still really hard because I'm very type A and so my brain doesn't work like that. So I don't know I'm just trying to like lean into it as much as possible like if my email isn't crazy busy then I'll go on like Fast Company or Inc. or Entrepreneur, and like read an article that I think I could benefit from, whereas before I feel like I literally didn't have like five minutes in my day to do that.
Kelly: Right. I recently heard somebody say if you replace your task-list with a to-solve list and take let's say you had ten things each day on your task list and now you're to-solve list becomes like much more strategic, becomes much more high level. That to-solve list maybe should have like four things on it for the entire week. I thought that was a really interesting way to sort of reframe exactly what you're talking about.
Annie: I am going to try that because that is a good way. Sometimes that's all it takes, just like witching the way you think about it.
Kelly: Yeah. So just kind of moving into the next big challenge that you faced. At some point between what we're talking about with the maternity leave and coming back, you had four employees actually quit and give notice, some leave within like just a couple of months of each other and you were pretty clear when we talked last time that you knew that the issue wasn't systemic. They were all for different reasons but that it actually did impact morale. And so I'm curious to know how as the visionary, as the founder, as the leader how did you sort of help that transition as well.
Annie: Well, I just try to be as honest and forthcoming with my staff as I could about each specific situation and I try to also very quickly hire freelancers or finding new people to fill in the gaps so that way at the very least the current staff wouldn't feel overloaded by having to pick up the work. So I think those are just very easy tactical things that I could do but it was really hard like super hard because most of my staff has been with me for years and years and years and so it was just like it was a shock for sure. Each situation was really different and I think in each situation I just was as honest as I could be with the team about why that person had left but we try to just to keep the morale like up, like we just try to do more like have more moments where we were sort of trying out all feel good about something that we did or like a big accomplishment we do every week.
On Thursday afternoons, we do weekly wins so it's like what was your big win for the week. So we try to just do that. I tried to highlight when a staff member had a great booking or had a great client, initiative that went well. I tried to make that feel more like a moment within the team so people would feel good about their work. And I think that's all good and I think people do appreciate that but at the end of the day, what people care the most about is either, are they getting more money or are their perks that are going to benefit them, so we try to just be even more flexible than we could about like time off, for people needing to work remotely sometimes. It kind of sucked. It was like I'm not gonna lie, it was very hard for sure.
Kelly: Yeah. So I'm curious to know like through the spectrum of a lot of these experiences that you're talking about which are so common in agency life, so many agency leaders can absolutely resonate with one or all of these things. I'm curious to know like how would you describe your own mindset as you were going through those, like were you really freaking out, were you able to compartmentalize, were you able to just kind of be authentic like what was your mindset, what was going through your mind to kind of help you get through it all.
Annie: I feel like I went through different phases and like different phases almost within each day. At home with my husband or talking to my mom on the phone. I'd be like freaking out, crying. I mean not like I was doing this all the time but I definitely have my moments. Having trouble sleeping, you wake up and you're like oh god how am I gonna fix this or what are we gonna do. I don't know if that ever goes away as long as you're still like involved in running the company because like I have twelve people that are on payroll like that's a big responsibility that you have to worry about. But in the office and from my staff I definitely tried to be reassuring as possible about everything because I mean losing some of the staff members was hard but we were fortunate in that the business was never at a point where we have to be worried about loss or anything like that.
So that was good but I think we all have some level of imposter syndrome and I definitely felt like I knew it was a learning experience for me but it was hard to feel confident that I was gonna see myself to the other side of it. So I just, I don't know, what did I do. I worked really hard. I tried to just like put myself out there to get more biz and to meet new people we can hire but then I also just tried to take advantage of like where I was at in my own life and my own career. This summer I realized in New York it feels like nobody even works in the summer but especially in August and so my daughter was turning one and then I had a lot of clients who are away and it was just sort of slow. And I just took a lot of time off like in that month just to be with her. I mean I'm always on my phone, accessible or whatever for work but I tried to just not freak out that like things were slow and I tried to just be like okay let me enjoy this time and I'm so glad I did that because literally the day after Labor Day, I feel like oh my god everybody just woke up, everybody's back like it’s crazy and things started to really pick up.
Kelly: Right. So it sounds like you're saying like with the team, you were really transparent. You were very reassuring to them. But did you also feel like you had this innate sense of like I don't know maybe from an intuitive standpoint or just like a deep knowing that everything was going to be fine. You just couldn't necessarily see how in that moment. Would you say that you had that or not necessarily?
Annie: Yes, I think I did because I was already nine years in business and so I'm like okay what are the chances that then after nine very successful years all of a sudden, it's all gonna come crumbling down. So I was like okay that's probably not going to happen and I try to remember pieces of advice that people gave me like an executive once told me like you can't expect every single year to grow, and grow, and grow. You have to have some flat years, you have to have some time that you are down, there's no business that just goes completely up every single year forever. And so I feel like I did have that knowing but if I also didn't have the anxiety and the nerves and the drive within me that like wanna make sure a hundred percent that that was going to be the case then I think that's how I balanced it.
Kelly: No, that’s great. So it was definitely like an intuitive or deep innate knowing that everything was going to be fine but also an action like action steps or actionable things that you did to realize like I can't just sit back and be like yeah, everything's gonna be fine. I know it'll be fine without me having to do something. It's like a little bit of both in terms of that dichotomy.
Annie: One hundred percent. Like somebody said to me like after I had a baby like are you even going to go back to work? You should just like relax and let Ross and Megan run the company and whatever. And I was like no, I mean like I could but again like I think as a founder, if you want to keep it moving and keep going to the next level only you until you're ready to completely check out. Like there was no like half in or out for me.
Kelly: You weren't ready at that point to make yourself optional in the business?
Kelly: You wanted to remain as whether it was from an oversight perspective in addition to doing business development, whatever it was, but that was what you wanted, like that's what was fulfilling to you in that moment, that that may change in five years but in that moment and right now that's where you're at.
Annie: Yeah, I think I think too like for people who are moms or dads like continuing to have that other purpose is so important at least for me, like just because Rose gives me so much purpose, but if I didn't have something that I was day in and day out working for myself, I do not think I would be as good of a parent or as patient or as just happy. So yes I think absolutely and also just tactically for the business, yeah, I think we still needed to have someone like myself sort of driving things from a higher perspective.
Kelly: Right. It is such a great conversation and I really appreciate your complete transparency and honesty and like sharing this story because a lot of people aren't really willing to be that vulnerable I guess we could call it to say yeah these are the things that I've gone through and this is how I am either I've come out of it or solved it or I'm like literally in the process of solving it. So I do appreciate that really. I guess my last question is really for some of the agency owners who are dealing with one or more of these things literally right now, as they're watching or listening to this. What's the best piece of advice? It sounds like you often like will ask other people for help and assistance and advice, which is amazing. Because we don't know everything ourselves that's why we surround ourselves with amazing people but what's the thing that you would actually advise other people who are going through this. What would be your number one like best piece of advice?
Annie: Therapy or a business coach, like for sure. I have a great therapist who has a lot of business experience too so we talk a lot in there about all the stuff we just talked about so I think having an outlet of some kind and for your business staff is so important and whether that's a mentor or a therapist or a business coach or whatever. I would say definitely that. I think I did for a long time just keep a list not everyday but as much as I could of things that made me feel happy about the business and about the job like to kind of keep practicing that gratitude part of it because it's so easy, especially as an owner but especially you’re the founder but especially when you're going through one of these issues or another big issue to like just y’all totally like burdened and just overwhelmed and my mom would always say like, you love this.
Kelly: I don’t love every part of it.
Annie: But it's like remembering why you're doing it and trying to just not feel like in every single moment I'm rushing to do the next thing or whatever and to like enjoy it a little bit would definitely be part of it and then I think to just like being as kind and easy on yourself as you can because if you're running a successful agency, you have for years and then you have a blip in the road like chances are high you're going to be able to get through it. And just remember to be good to yourself through that process. It is not easy but that probably would be helpful.
Kelly: Yeah, that's amazing. I literally couldn't have scripted a better answer to that question. Thank you so much. I really appreciate you joining me on the show today. Best of luck and all the success in the world.