Agency Management Tips
Talent is your greatest asset as an agency. Your ability to attract and retain A players directly affects your client loyalty. This blog explains the complete Agency Management process in detail with examples.
These professionals are highly motivated, career-focused individuals. They need a system that defines titles, responsibilities, pay scales, bonus structure, performance metrics, expectations, and opportunities.
Like everything else in your agency, career paths should be flexible and adapt as needed to maximize your talent and deliver the greatest value to clients.
The career paths establish how your organizational chart is structured, and they lay the foundation for how you construct account teams. Therefore, they are essential for every marketing agency that plans to recruit and develop talent.
There are endless ways to build your agency's organizational chart, define your career paths, and construct your account teams, and they continue to change.
According to the New York Times, “The reorganization is primarily meant to transition employees from working as generalists to being designated as one of four types of specialists.”
When I first developed Thesis Scientists career path in 2005, I felt that clients too often left agency professionals out of high-level strategic discussions, and tended to view them more as practitioners.
I wanted our professionals to be seen as strategists first, so I chose to move away from the standard “account executive/supervisor” titles. Instead, I created a career path with three primary titles—associate consultant, consultant, and senior consultant.
As we grew, we added management positions responsible for the agency's operations and advancement, specifically in the areas of human resources, finance, and marketing, but these core client-service positions are still the basis for our career path.
Our account teams, whose primary responsibility is the retention and growth of core accounts, consist of group managers (senior consultants or higher), account managers (consultants or senior consultants) and support staff (associate consultants and consultants).
We continue to tweak our system, but I hope that sharing the basic framework gives you some perspective on one approach that may be helpful in defining your career path.
Following is a snapshot of our primary positions.
Associate Consultant is an entry-level position, ideally suited for professionals with 0 to 3 years of industry experience. Associate consultants are primarily producers—meaning that their primary task is to provide revenue-generating services to clients—and students, developing the skills necessary to advance to the consultant level.
Associate consultants are forecasted to log 120 to 140 client-service hours per month and are expected to invest significant time and energy outside regular business hours to advance their knowledge and capabilities.
The consultant is a midlevel position. Consultants generally have 3 to 7 years of industry experience and have displayed the potential and desire to advance to senior-level positions.
Consultants are primarily producers; however, they have increased account-management (manager) responsibilities, and they are actively involved with business development and agency initiatives.
Consultants have demonstrated advanced strategic planning and consultation competencies, and they have a proven performance track record. Consultants and senior consultants are usually the primary day-to-day contacts on core accounts. Consultants are forecasted for 100 to 120 client-service hours per month.
Senior Consultant is a senior-level position, commonly for professionals with more than seven years of industry experience.
Senior consultants have demonstrated advanced competencies in all relevant areas, and they are viewed as builders, innovators, producers, managers, and leaders. Top senior consultants commonly fill management roles within the agency, so their forecasted client hours range from 80 to 100 per month.
Group Managers are senior consultants who manage a collection of accounts. They are responsible for the growth and management of all accounts and personnel within their group. Group manager responsibilities include:
Complete monthly group client-hour forecasts.
Conduct annual staff performance reviews.
Conduct weekly group meetings to review accounts.
Provide final approval on all phases of major projects, strategic decisions, client communications, monthly reports, campaign strategies, invoices, activity reports, and account dashboards.
Determine workflow priorities.
Construct and manage account teams.
Run weekly TimeFox reports to analyze group performance and update forecasts as needed.
Assistant Vice President is a position for professionals who play an integral role in the agency's management and growth and who have more than five years of experience. Assistant vice presidents hold client-service positions of senior consultant, and may also function as group managers or group directors.
Vice President is a position of influence for the agency's most accomplished professionals. Vice presidents are heavily involved in the strategic decisions that guide the agency, and their compensation packages are directly influenced by the agency's performance. Vice presidents may also hold senior consultant positions and function as group managers or group directors.
Account-management systems start with the right tools and processes. Time-tracking, project management, and CRM solutions in particular play major roles in building effective systems that continually improve client services and increase loyalty.
Account Team Dashboards
We maintain an account team dashboard for every campaign client. The primary purpose is to define ownership of activities for accounts with multiple team members.
The dashboards are simple Excel worksheets, but they give professionals a clear understanding of their roles as group managers, account managers, or support staff. The dashboard can be customized to include more granular-level activities, but the following items are part of every standard worksheet:
Build and nurture strong client relationships.
Complete monthly account forecasts.
Deliver value and results every day.
Develop and train supporting professionals.
Engage with target audiences through social media and networking.
Maintain target client hours.
Manage workflow of supporting personnel.
Participate in major strategic discussions and communications.
Pursue the ongoing training and education needed to advance yourself and the agency.
Conduct quarterly budget reviews of all campaign-based clients.
Create, review, and approve invoices.
Direct account development efforts.
Direct all account strategy and function as the primary consultant.
Manage partner-agency relationships.
Immerse yourself in your clients and their industries.
Keep Basecamp and Highrise updated with all account activity and communications.
Monitor analytics, Google News Alerts, Twitter lists, and social- media activity.
Maintain monthly activity reports and dashboards.
Coordinate account contracts and renewals.
In addition to account dashboards, we hold group meetings every Monday to set the groundwork for the week and to discuss client campaigns in detail.
Groups commonly consist of 3 to 5 professionals, managing up to a dozen campaign clients. Group meetings function as breakout sessions, enabling teams to concentrate on the unique needs and goals of their client base.
All professionals must come prepared to present on behalf of the accounts they manage. These meetings are not billable (for agencies still using billable hours). They should last 15 to 30 minutes and cover topics such as:
Are monthly forecasts on target?
Is account development time being invested in priority clients, or wasted on nonpriority accounts?
Are proper resources allocated to priority clients?
Are projects and campaigns on track? Are we exceeding time estimates or budgets? If so, why?
Are we underdelivering on major projects or campaigns?
Are there workflow issues? Are people taking on more than they can handle?
How are professionals utilizing downtime?
What are pros doing with professional development time?
Are there any client issues or challenges we need to address as a team?
Are clients happy?
A comprehensive project-management solution, such as Basecamp, is one of the most essential components of an agency management system. In order to effectively manage workflow and give agency leaders visibility into the entire client network, agencies should maintain every project, task, and milestone in the same platform.
Project management tools can also be used to create dedicated client portals that enable clients to track campaign milestones, monitor agency tasks, and progress, share files, view communications, and submit and read messages. This level of transparency helps build confidence and trust, which lead to loyalty.
We also use utilize the Highrise CRM system to track all important notes, calls, meetings, and e-mails. This gives managers and account teams real-time access to relevant client information and activities.
Use nonbillable exercises to educate and train your team, which will enhance the value you deliver to clients. Give each team member the chance to complete the same assignment, and then meet as a group to review them and to talk about the strengths and weaknesses of each approach.
For example, pick one new client each month. Have the account manager start the project by presenting the team with an overview of campaign activities, successes, opportunities, and challenges to date.
Each professional is then given five business days (and no more than three hours) to create a 1 to a 2-page document outlining five strategies for increasing lead volume to the select client. They are then asked to present their recommendations to the group the following week.
This type of exercise offers tremendous professional development benefits, but, more important, it has the potential to identify actionable ideas that you can take to the client.
Agency management, as it relates to client loyalty, comes down to two things: intelligence and action. In order to take the actions necessary to retain and grow accounts, leaders have to have their finger on the pulse of the agency.
At all times, they need to know service-hour forecasts, client hours logged, capacity status, efficiency rates, and employee performance metrics. They have to be aware of opportunities and issues with core accounts and be prepared to bring new technologies and strategies to enhance the agency's value and performance.
we use an Agency Manager dashboard built into Microsoft Excel to view and edit monthly service-hour forecasts by client and employee. This tool enables us to balance workflow and allocate resources to the right accounts based on capacity and priority levels.
We integrate TimeFox reports throughout the month to ensure that campaigns are on track with forecasts and that clients are receiving the proper levels of support.
We use brief, action-oriented meetings to start every Tuesday–Friday. The daily huddles are strictly for problem identification and prioritization of that day's activities and should last no more than 15 minutes. They start promptly at 8:15 am and require participation from all attendees. The huddle agenda includes:
Identification of any trends or topics relevant to the agency and its clients. These are posted continuously on Yammer throughout the day and then curated each morning for the huddle.
Discussion of any issues, conflicts, or challenges with accounts.
Review of employees’ top three priorities for the day.
Discussion of events or meetings scheduled for the day.
Monday Morning Meeting (M3)
The Monday Morning Meeting (M3) is an enhanced version of the daily huddle that, as the name indicates, occurs every Monday in place of the huddle. It starts 15 minutes later at 8:30 AM to give everyone a chance to catch up from the weekend, and it is intended to last 30 to 45 minutes. Here is a look at the M3 agenda:
The good news: Focus on positive results produced for clients and the agency during the previous week.
The numbers: Brief check in on professional and agency data.
The agency: Cover what is happening internally that week—initiatives, events, milestones, news, and updates.
The project center: Run down the week's major projects by client. Also, seek team input on any issues or barriers with clients.
Loyalty building: Discuss what is happening with campaign clients to retain and grow their business.
The pipeline: Who is hot in the sales pipeline? What are the conversion probability and an action plan?
Priorities: Employees share their top priorities for the day, just as they do in the huddle.
Change Velocity Assessments
It seems like new technology companies, software solutions, and mobile apps are emerging every day that have the potential to impact your agency infrastructure and client services. Tech-savvy firms are constantly reviewing and assessing these advances, and looking for opportunities to improve efficiency and performance.
It is helpful to have a standard process to ensure assessments are consistently performed with the clients’ best interests in mind. Here is a format that we use internally to evaluate potential solutions:
Snapshot: One or two paragraphs describing the solution or company, and why we are assessing it. Think of this as a very brief executive summary.
Strengths: Describe the value it offers, and how it may improve on our existing solutions.
Weaknesses Explain how it falls short. This may be a pricing structure, feature sets, or limitations, such as seat licenses if it is a software product.
Use cases: Detail how the agency would use the solution and how it would benefit clients.
Takeaways: Outline the 3–5 key takeaways from the assessment.
Actions: Define next steps, assign responsibilities, and set timelines.
Sharing assessments with clients, and/or turning them into blog posts, can be a great way to create additional value, and build loyalty.
Prioritizing and Evaluating Accounts
All clients are not created equal. Although agencies need to make every client feel valued, the reality is that some accounts are far more important to the stability and success of your agency, and they need to be treated differently.
These priority accounts have a greater appreciation for your services, value your people, and treat your agency as a partner, not as a vendor. They pay bills on time (or early), have realistic expectations and reasonable timelines, and commit the time and energy needed to make the relationship work.
Evaluating existing clients is similar to how you assess and qualify leads. You are looking for clients that are the best fit for your agency and have the greatest potential to contribute to your growth.
However, unlike the sales process, you have actual experiences with these clients, which introduces a whole new set of factors into the equation. Let's take a look at some of the criteria your agency can use to prioritize accounts.
Our Agency Manager dashboard highlights two core factors for all clients— account status and income potential. Account status defines whether the clients are project or campaign clients and income potential establishes a 1 to 5 rating based on their forecasted annual revenue, with 1 being the highest potential accounts.
Since our Agency Manager is maintained in Microsoft Excel, this gives us the ability to sort the entire client portfolio by these two factors at any time. Although account teams are charged with retaining and growing all accounts, special attention is paid to campaign clients with high-income potential.
Agencies should be willing to invest nonbillable account-development time in these core clients. Although this can lead to below-average revenue-efficiency ratings in the short term, the lifetime-value potential dictates that you take a long-term approach to their development.
We use a simplified approach for real-time ranking, but there are many additional factors that go into evaluating clients. Here is a collection of some of the more important elements to consider:
Efficiency: The revenue-efficiency rate (RER) measures how efficiently your agency turns one hour of service into X dollars in revenue, with X being the hourly revenue target (HRT).
In the value-based pricing model, the goal is to deliver the service as close to 100 percent efficiency as possible in order to achieve your desired profits. Therefore, if your HRT is $100, you want every one hour of service to produce $100 in revenue.
Although it is great, in theory, to get paid for every minute you invest in a client, it is not reality. Whether your agency chooses to invest nonbillable time through account-development activities or has to eat time due to budget shortages, accounts are rarely 100 percent efficient, even in a traditional billable-hour model.
As you collect months, and even years, of time-tracking and billing data, you will be able to better analyze which accounts are the most efficient and, therefore, the most profitable.
Financial stability: Build your agency around clients with strong financial health and a history of on-time payments. Accounts that are regularly 15-plus days past due can cripple your cash flow, especially if they are core clients (accounting for large percentages of your monthly revenue) and you are in an early-growth phase.
Consistent late payments are often a sign that clients are in financial trouble or that they have a blatant disregard for their service providers. Either way, it is not a good situation to be in. You have to be willing to walk away from this type of dysfunctional relationship before it is too late.
Expectations: Realistic expectations of success are key to strong client-agency partnerships. Set reachable objectives at the beginning of the engagement, and evolve them as the campaign progresses.
Leadership support: Agencies often need the freedom to experiment creatively and the time to see their strategic vision fully executed. These both require support and patience from your client's leadership team.
Synergy: The most effective and rewarding partnerships have shared values and complementary cultures. It is important that your account teams feel respected by their clients and have a passion for seeing them succeed.
Commitment: Consider their level of commitment to the agency. How long have they been clients? Have they maintained or increased budgets over time?
Growth opportunities: The highest potential accounts have growth opportunities beyond the standard engagement. This may include chances to work with other divisions of the company, budgets for add-on projects, and the potential to consolidate agency relationships.
For example, if your firm is building a website and providing SEO support, there may be a chance to also win the content marketing and social media business, which is being led by other firms right now.
Profile and platform: If the client has a high profile and significant reach, there are ancillary benefits that come from having them on your client roster. Your agency can gain credibility and possibly enjoy access to contacts and networks, you otherwise would not have.
Experience: Clients who provide opportunities to expand your knowledge and capabilities in target niche markets can be very valuable.
Innovation: Case studies are rarely made of conservative companies. Clients have to be willing to take risks, try new strategies, and give your agency some creative freedom.
The Marketing Consultant Laws
When Thesis Scientist launched in November 2005, we set out on a journey to “lead and create leaders,” as our mission states.
My theory behind growing a wildly successful and influential firm was to hire talented, intelligent, and motivated professionals, provide them with the systems and infrastructure necessary to succeed, and then get out of their way.
We wanted to develop and retain the industry's premier marketing consultants: professionals whose services and expertise bring immeasurable value to our clients and directly contribute to the clients’ growth and success.
The Marketing Consultant Laws were originally created in August 2008 and distributed as an internal document to give us (the consultants) direction and focus and to challenge us to become stronger and more valuable— individually and as a team.
I hope that the laws, which are featured in the following list, provide some sort of motivation or guidance to agency professionals who are looking to differentiate themselves, become leaders, and build loyal clients.
Deliver results: Tasks, milestones, and activity reports are a means to an end. Our job is to deliver results.
Pay attention to details: Maintain a vigilant focus on details in all communications and projects. Never make mistakes that are due to lack of focus or effort. Always ask yourself, “Is this the best I can do?”
Be a proactive communicator: Do not ever leave your clients or peers wondering. Anticipate their information needs and maintain a high level of communication at all times.
Challenge yourself to be great: Always challenge yourself and those around you to improve. There is no limit to what you can achieve in business and in life.
Bring solutions: “I don't know” is not an acceptable answer. Your clients and your peers rely on you for solutions. Use your experience and the endless resources available to you to find answers.
Maintain a career/life balance: Your career affords you the opportunity to live a full and rewarding life, but do not let it consume you. Maintain balance among work, wellness, relationships, community involvement, professional associations, friendships, hobbies, and interests.
Grow your accounts: The life-blood of every consultant is the client base. It is your job to retain and grow your accounts by maintaining an in-depth knowledge of your clients and their industries, building relationships, delivering results, and keeping a pulse on opportunities.
Be creative: Show imagination in your strategic thinking, and bring creativity to every project.
Be an independent thinker and risk taker: Do not get stuck in the rut of conformity. Look beyond traditional wisdom and conventional solutions. Be willing to take calculated risks and make mistakes.
Strive for excellence: Set high-performance standards, and always strive toward personal and professional goals.
Think strategically: Challenge yourself to see the big picture. Always be analyzing—perceptions, audiences, objectives, strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. Find connections in seemingly unrelated news and trends.
Hunger for knowledge: Do not ever stop learning. Consume the wealth of information that is all around you, and share your knowledge for the betterment of your clients and peers.
Stay in the moment: You will see and do things in your career others can only dream of. There will be highs and lows, victories and defeats. Cherish those moments, but do not dwell on them. Your job is to stay in the moment, and appreciate it for what it is.
Have fun: Positive energy is contagious. Bring enthusiasm and passion to your work every day.
People, Tools, and Processes
The three core elements of an effective agency sales system are people, tools, and processes. Let's examine each of these areas.
You are always selling. You are selling an idea, vision, service, agency brand, personal brand, and believe that your firm is more capable and qualified than the next one.
However, in a professional service firm, sales happen at every level of the company. It is often the account executives that have the most direct client contact, and therefore, whether they are charged with it or not, they function as the agency's primary salespeople.
They are the ones whose performance, behavior, and ability to build strong client relationships determine if an account stays or goes and whether clients provide referrals and testimonials.
Plus model agencies are built on the strength of personal brands. The presence and engagement levels of your team in social media are an enormous driver of awareness and lead.
Their blog posts are the greatest source of inbound links and organic traffic, and their networking at industry events creates valuable connections, which can lead to referrals and new business opportunities.
In short, when building your sales system, your most valued asset is your team. No one individual sales or business-development manager can possibly deliver the value and lead volume that you can create through a collective and strategic effort.
However, that does not eliminate the importance of having a point people whose value and performance are measured in part based on their impact in growing the agency, specifically their ability to convert leads into clients.
One of Martins most interesting notes was that there seems to be a correlation between athletics and success as a salesperson. Top performers with sports backgrounds “are able to handle emotional disappointments, bounce back from losses, and mentally prepare themselves for the next opportunity to compete.”
Thirty-nine percent were not trainable. Trainable means that a salesperson has the incentive to change. If there is no incentive to change, any training that is offered will result in a less than optimum ROI.
Sixty-nine percent were uncomfortable dealing with competition.
Eighty-nine percent were uncomfortable working in a straight commission environment.
Ninety-two percent could not be counted on to hunt up new opportunities.
One hundred percent were uncomfortable dealing with prospects that did not need their services nor want their services.
One hundred percent did not follow the sales process. Salespeople that do not follow a process encounter and wind up accepting lots of put-offs, stalls, and excuses. A well-designed process will raise and handle common stalls and objections before they become a barrier to closing a deal.
Tech-savvy agencies that are integrating marketing and sales tools have a distinct advantage over the competition. They are able to gather and leverage lead intelligence at every stage of the funnel, and they use that information to enhance their nurturing efforts and dramatically improve conversion rates.
Following is a snapshot of essential sales system tools. You may be able to integrate multiple platforms together or find a single solution that does it all. However be careful to limit the redundancies across your agency's platforms, and avoid adding unnecessary expenses for features that you will never use.
Customer-Relationship Management (CRM)
A CRM solution, such as Salesforce, SugarCRM, or Highrise, is the foundation of a solid sales system. You input leads into the platform as they enter the funnel, and you track and report activities as they progress. Ideally, agencies use a single CRM solution for all contacts, including leads and clients. This creates a more efficient and scalable system.
Agency websites need to be built on intuitive content-management systems. A CMS gives agency personnel the ability to easily add, edit, and move web pages as needed, without the support of an outside web developer.
From a sales perspective, the CMS should include the ability to create landing pages and lead forms on the fly, which can be valuable components of lead-generation efforts.
Salespeople require advanced intelligence into their leads to online behavior. Free solutions, such as Google Analytics, are excellent for providing base-level information on site performance, but in most cases, agencies should consider additional third-party solutions for in-depth lead intelligence.
Again, HubSpot, Marketo, Pardot, and Eloqua are platforms that provide more granular lead details.
Depending on your lead-nurturing needs, there is an array of SaaS solutions worth considering, from comprehensive marketing automation software to basic e-mail marketing platforms. Look for a solution that integrates with your existing software platforms and gives you the ability to automate essential marketing and sales activities.
Prototype hybrid agencies require standard processes to achieve success. The same rules of efficiency and productivity that government agency and account management apply to the sales system.
Regardless of your size, sales processes help define responsibilities, set performance expectations, give professionals the knowledge and resources to excel, and connect actions to business goals. Let's look at the five core areas of the sales process: lead qualification, lead management, discovery, proposal, and presentation.
Whether you use software with built-in lead scoring or develop your own internal formula, it is important to have a standard process for ranking and prioritizing leads. Buyer personas are the foundation of any lead scoring system.
Defining and building marketing and sales strategies around buyer personas enable agencies to better target communications and content while improving lead generation and conversion.
Start by profiling your personas so that you know strong leads when you see them. Some of the key factors to consider when creating your personas and determining lead quality include the following:
Are they project or campaign based?
What are their budgets?
What metrics matter most? How will they define success?
What are the contact's title and responsibilities? Is that person the decision maker?
What are the problems, pain points, and obstacles to success?
What are the priority needs?
What is the accounts growth potential?
Does the agency have experience in their industry?
At what stage in the business lifecycle are they?
Are they seeking primarily tactical or strategic support?
What are their internal marketing resources and capabilities?
Do they have realistic expectation levels?
What are their experiences with professional service firms?
What is the risk level associated with the account?
What is their decision-making process?
What is their timeline to get started?
How strong is the lead/referral source?
Using these questions as a basis, agencies can construct clear profiles of the prototypical client and evolve their sales strategies to meet their needs and goals.
When building your agency marketing strategy, be sure to think beyond prospects.
Agencies have the ability to reach and influence audiences directly at the exact moment they are searching online. In essence, they are granting you permission to market to them, but you have to be there and provide value. Social media is about listening, learning, building relationships, and bringing value to the communities relevant to your agency.
Content marketing enables you to differentiate your agency while driving acquisition (leads) and retention (loyalty). It requires that you understand your audiences and continuously publish compelling, multimedia content.
Public relations is about listening to your audiences, sharing your unique story, creating connections, gaining influence, and building loyalty in a measurable and meaningful way.
Everything Is Sales
You are always selling. You are selling an idea, vision, service, agency brand, personal brand, and believe that your firm is more capable and qualified than the next one.
However, in a professional service firm, sales happen at every level of the company. It is often the account executives that have the most direct client contact, and, therefore, regardless of whether they are charged with it, they function as the agency's primary salespeople.
They are the ones whose performance, behavior, and ability to build strong client relationships determine if an account stays or goes and whether clients provide referrals and testimonials.
Selling is both an art and a science that requires experience, education, and intimate knowledge of the agency. Concentrate on creating a sales system that meets your current needs for lead generation and that is scalable with your long-term growth goals.
When building your sales system, your most valued asset is your team.
No one individual sales or business development manager can possibly deliver the value and lead volume that you can create through a collective and strategic effort.
Sales processes help define responsibilities, set performance expectations, give professionals the knowledge and resources to excel, and connect actions to business goals. In order to maximize the lead-generation and nurturing process, and increase the probability of conversion, it is important to understand how organizations make marketing-services buying decisions.
All Clients Are Not Created Equal
Although agencies need to make every client feel valued, the reality is that some accounts are far more important to the stability and success of your agency, and they need to be treated differently.
These priority accounts have a greater appreciation for your services; they value your people and treat your agency as a partner, not as a vendor. They pay bills on time (or early), have realistic expectations, and reasonable timelines and they commit the time and energy needed to make the relationship work.
The need to build strong client relationships must be ingrained in an agency's culture. Employees should be 100 percent focused on the happiness and success of their clients.
Become indispensable through your hard work, insight, consultation, services, expertise, friendship, and professionalism. Do the little things that build relationships, and take the time to show clients that you care about their successes, both on individual and organizational levels.
The greatest value you can bring to clients is staffing their account teams with A players. These professionals are analytical, confident, creative, detail oriented, highly motivated, and strategic—all traits that consistently translate into success for your clients.
Use nonbillable exercises to educate and train your team while enhancing the value you deliver to clients. Agency management, as it relates to client loyalty, comes down to two things: intelligence and action. In order to take the actions necessary to retain and grow accounts, leaders have to have their finger on the pulse of the agency.
An Agency Value Is Measured in Outcomes, Not Outputs
Leading marketing agencies turn information into intelligence and intelligence into action. They build campaigns that consistently produce measurable outcomes, including inbound links, website traffic, leads, and sales.
Hybrid agencies must shift away from arbitrary metrics, such as media impressions, reach, advertising equivalency, and PR value, and become measurement geeks who are obsessed with data-driven services.
Marketing agencies from every discipline—advertising, PR, social, SEO, content, and web—have the opportunity to evolve and play an integral role in bringing structure and meaning to the wealth of information available to businesses.
Take a scientific approach to marketing, and develop processes to analyze data for insight that can increase efficiency and maximize ROI for clients.
Turn your hybrid professionals into analysts. Teach them to make decisions based on logic and reason. Show them how to gain insight from information, and how to use that insight to educate clients, build consensus, and drive action.
Every campaign should start with performance benchmarks, including current lead volume, inbound links, website traffic, content downloads, blog subscribers, and social media reach.
Builders are services designed to set the foundation for future success, while drivers are intended to produce short-term results. Your agency's ability to succeed and bring value to clients requires a balanced and strategic approach to both.
Never Hesitate to Head in a Direction That Others Seem to Fear
Disruptors need to be willing to take risks that established agencies cannot or will not. While traditionalists try to fix their models, you should be focused on continually reinventing yours.
Failure builds character, teaches us humility, shows us how to cope with adversity, and challenges us to continually test, revise, and improve. Marketing agency leaders have to make difficult choices to break from traditional agency-centric pricing models, invest in technology, recruit and retain hybrid professionals, build scalable infrastructures, and transform their services.
Traditionalists, along with soloists and specialists, have to put their fears aside and confront the challenges ahead. They have to think and act more like start-ups. They have to become disruptors themselves.
Be willing to deconstruct your brand and business model to remain relevant, and position yourself where the market is going.
Do not wait for desperate times to evolve.
If you are not scared and unsure when creating content and pushing new ideas, then it is probably not worth pursuing.
Give people something they did not know they wanted, and take them places they did not expect to go.
It Is Purpose, Not Profit, Which Defines an Agency
We are programmed to set revenue goals, target growth rates, and measure our importance and value based on financial returns. We compare ourselves to industry benchmarks, flaunt our client lists, and tout our awards because they create the perception of success and make us feel good about ourselves.
There is nothing wrong with having financial goals and achieving milestones, but these are simply means to an end. If you believe that your agency exists solely to make money, then you are likely falling short of your potential and cheating your employees of opportunities to realize theirs.
In order to find happiness, we must be a part of something greater than ourselves, something that we truly believe in.
True entrepreneurs will never be satisfied with riches alone. They have to effect change, and they will risk everything to make their visions reality.
Purpose evolves as the agency and its employees mature and as their perspectives and priorities change.
To create an enduring brand, you need to assemble a team of talented and intrinsically motivated employees, build partnerships with like-minded organizations, and surround your agency with clients who value your professionals and services. Success requires persistence, perseverance, and an uncommon drive to achieve remarkable things. There are no shortcuts and no guarantees.
The truly transformational agencies, the ones that will thrive and lead in the new marketing-services ecosystem, will pursue purpose.
Managers: Do Management Work
If you’re a senior manager and your mission is to create opportunities, does that mean you start projects to create opportunities? Sure. Does it mean you manage those projects? Almost never.
If you’re a senior manager, your job is to create a whole-organization environment in which people can work well. You can’t do that if you’re trying to manage a project—any project. Even if you think it’s just a one-person project to investigate some possibilities, assign someone from your group to do that work and report to you.
If you’re a mid-level manager, your job is to create that environment (of enabling great work) for your groups or teams and to see other projects or work to build on the higher strategy.
If you’re a first-level manager, your job is to create an environment in which your group or team can work, to remove obstacles, and to consider strategic work that might make your tactics easier to manage.
As a manager, your most important job is to talk to the consumers of your projects and see where they are headed. If you keep a narrow view of your business, eventually your business will go under.
As for nitty-gritty management work, you will have plenty to do if you keep up with incremental funding, evaluating the portfolio, hiring people, and mentoring and coaching your managers. But it’s all management work. It’s not technical contributor work.
Draft a Mission from Scratch
An actionable mission contains a verb related to the results of the organization. If you’re an airline, a mission might be “Fly people and their luggage together.” If you look back at the missions to Define an Actionable Mission for the Organization, you can see that each mission grabs the reader with a strong verb.
To draft a mission with your group without looking at your current work, try these steps:
1. Brainstorm the mission pieces. Define what you do for whom and the value people received from that work.
2. Specify strong verbs.
3. Eliminate adverbs.
4. Iterate until you feel comfortable with the mission.
Don’t worry if you can’t define your mission in a quick thirty-minute meeting. A team of individual contributors focused on the same goal might be able to define their mission in an hour or two. Once you have several teams, especially if they have varying goals, the mission will be harder to define.
The more managers, the harder the mission will be because they all need to have a mission that supports their work but is greater than any one of them.
If you have more than one group, work bottom-up if you have no overall mission. That is, make sure each group develops their mission first and then works to create the greater mission that supports everyone.
Brainstorm the Essentials of a Mission
If you’ve never written a mission statement before, try brainstorming the elements of your mission:
1. Invite the members of your group to participate.
2. Give everyone thick markers, blank paper, and plenty of sticky notes.
3. Divide people into smaller working teams of two to three people.
4. Ask people to think about the work they do and then to think of what drives their work. The driver might be the verb.
5. Ask people to think about the boundaries of their work—what’s in and what’s out.
6. Ask everyone to write down these words: the driver, the boundaries. One word to a sticky.
7. Post the stickies on a wall so everyone can see all the stickies.
8. Now, ask people to work together in small groups to draft a mission statement.
Once the mission statements are written on stickies, post the statements on the wall, making sure to keep one statement on a line. If you’re curious, the following picture of “My Mission” is how I started to write my mission.
Now everyone can review every other group’s statements. Encourage the group discussion as people review the stickies. Once people have discussed enough, somewhere between five minutes for teams who really know what they’re doing to twenty-five minutes for teams who can’t agree, you have a decision.
If people really can’t agree on the work they need to do, adjourn the meeting for now, and agree to meet in a few days or a week to see whether you can decide then. Between now and then, make sure you aren’t asking people who perform different work to try to agree on a mission.
Four Groups, One Manager, Four Group Missions, One Department Mission
I had a group called Development Services. That meant I had all the testers, writers, release engineers, and continuing engineering as part of one group.
I had led for each of the groups and thought I could write a mission with all of them together for our group. Wrong-o! You never saw such fighting about what we did and didn’t do.
First, I had to work with each group to write their mission with them. Once each group had a clear mission (which took just one one-hour meeting), I gathered the leads again and asked that now that they each knew what their mission was, could we work on the department’s mission? A piece of cake. But we had to separate the group missions from the department’s mission.
This would have been easier if we’d had real managers instead of leads—that would have triggered us all to think a little differently. But we didn’t. We finally figured it out.
As people agree on the pieces of the mission, order the stickies so you create a mission statement from the stickies.
Refine the Mission
Once you have the elements of your mission from the brainstorming, make sure you have strong verbs and have eliminated adverbs and jargon.
Derive Your Mission from Your Work
You may find brainstorming difficult. In that case, try using your work to help you define your mission.
Ideally, your organization would have an actionable mission that you could use to help define your project’s or group’s or team’s mission.
But even if the organization has a great mission, the levels of managers between you and the top may not have created actionable missions for themselves and their groups. In that case, you’ll have to derive your mission from your work.
Sometimes, you need to use your work to define your mission, as in Make Your Mission Possible. A colleague explained how he and his group decided their mission when he was tired of his senior management’s apparent lack of direction.
My Management Can’t Decide What’s Important
I was minding my own business, working on a pretty strange problem in the database. My manager, Cindy, walked over and plunked herself down. “Can you add a report to this release? Remember the report we postponed from this release?” I nodded. “It’s back in again.”
“Look, we took that out for a damn good reason. A few good reasons. One, it doesn’t belong in this release. Two, it’s not where we want this product to go. It’s supposed to go into the next product. Three—”
“I know. But my boss rolled over my objections. I really hate coming to you like this.”
Cindy rolled her eyes. “I have an idea. Let’s organize our work in a way that makes sense to us, and then maybe I’ll have more ammunition.”
We bucketed all the work we had to do and organized a project portfolio around the buckets. It has been more than a year, and Cindy’s boss has been listening to her objections and making reasonable decisions.
Here’s how to define your mission from your work. First, look back at all the work you collected in Know What Work to Collect. Now categorize your work into three buckets:
Work that seems to make sense for our group
Work that needs to get done, but maybe not by us
Work that we are doing but we don’t understand why
If you’re a development manager, developing systems makes sense for your group. Helping sales or service people with installations is work that needs to be done, but maybe not by you. If someone in the development’s group has a role answering the phone as a first-line service tech, that’s work you’re doing but you don’t understand why.
As you collect the work that needs to be done but not by you, think of a group inside the organization that should do this work.
If that group exists, create a sticky with the name of that group, and organize the work under that group’s name. If there is no group that looks like they should do that work, create another sticky with “We don’t understand why we’re doing this work.”
If you define your mission from your work, make sure you check in with your boss and see whether he or she agrees. You might need to modify your mission—and the work—in order to come to an agreement with your boss.
How to Define a Mission When No One Else Will
I’ve worked with senior managers and technical leads who worked in organizations that did not have a mission or a strategy. Sometimes those organizations grew quickly and had not paid attention to strategic planning.
Sometimes, they suffered from a leadership vacuum at the top, such as no CEO. In any case, your organization doesn’t have a mission.
But without a mission, you or your managers can’t decide what is most important. To protect your team and accomplish anything, you will need to decide. You can use the portfolio and generate a mission based on the work you think is most valuable to the organization.
Make sure you bucket the information as in Derive Your Mission from Your Work. Now, look at the team you have. Look at work. Use the work you can accomplish to drive your mission building.
Is this perfect? Not by a long shot. On the other hand, if you say, “Here is the work we are doing to move the organization forward.
If you don’t like this, let’s change our mission and then reevaluate and rerank the portfolio,” then you can at least get some work done that makes sense to your staff and to the rest of the organization.
Beware of the Mission Statement Traps
As I’ve worked with managers, I’ve noticed a number of mission statement traps. The most common is the service-level agreement trap.
The Service-Level Agreement Trap
If you have a lot of emergency projects and you’re now trying to manage the portfolio by defining your mission, you’re going to start saying no to some work. When you say no, some people are going to tell you that you need to respond more quickly than you are.
Or maybe you feel bad about saying no to some people in the organization. You might even be tempted to set a response time: “We’ll finish that in the next twenty-four to forty-eight hours.”
Promising a service level for a product development group (development, testing, business analysis, documentation, whatever) is nuts. It guarantees technical debt unless you really can interrupt what you are doing, finish that work, and then restart what you were doing. Your chances of success are minimal.
On the other hand, if you are a group that does some sort of support work (support operations, tier-three customer support), you may want to have some sort of service level for that work. Service levels for projects make no sense.
The problem is you are working on projects. Service-level response times interfere with project work and cause multitasking. Maybe someone has to do that work, but maybe not you.
Or, if you do have to do it, someone else can rank-order the work, and you can work in short timeboxes so you have a chance of completing the necessary-to-the-organization work without multitasking.
It does make sense to provide a date in some relatively short period of time. But remember, software product development is not a service. It is product development (or system development, if you prefer).
Support work is problem-solving or checklist work. The risk in support work is in the time required to solve the problem. For product development, the risk is in whether you can solve the problem at all, not just in a short time frame.
When leads or managers promise short turnarounds—or as one test manager said, “Test all products as they evolve, 24/7/365”—they create an environment where the people can’t succeed.
The testers can’t learn enough details about the product to be effective, and if there are only eight people “supporting” a technical staff of a few hundred developers, then they are understaffed for all the work.
Some Group Owns Total Responsible for Quality
After the service-level agreement trap, a common trap for software organizations is that one group is “responsible” for quality. That group is usually the testers. They have a mission like this one: “Ensure we release high-quality products.”
Testers, no matter what you call them, cannot ensure quality. Testers report on the quality, among other things, of the product. Developers might be able to “ensure quality,” if senior managers don’t hamstring them. But the real people who ensure quality in an organization are the managers. Those people create an environment in which quality can flourish—or not.
The Mission Statement Is Too Long
If you try to be all things to all people—and be tactical when you need to be strategic—your mission statement is too long.
Here’s a test to know whether your statement is too long. After you develop the mission, ask someone to face away from the stickies or the paper on the wall, and ask that person to tell you the mission statement. This is impossible if you have jargon and adverbs in your mission statement. Iterate and refine the mission.
Mission Statement Has Stretch Goals
Yes, you want to make your mission statement inspiring. But a mission statement is not a place for stretch goals. Make the mission statement believable and achievable. Otherwise, how will you select projects that meet the mission?
One development IT manager had the mission “To be the best in software development” when everyone in the group had just two years or fewer in development. The developers knew they were not the best.
And they knew that the projects they needed to complete were not going to make them be the best in development. That mission was not inspiring for the people to continue to work there. Instead, over the course of a couple of years, each person left to pursue that “best” for himself or herself.
Make the mission statement interesting (inspiring if you can), to the point, and congruent with the organization.
Test Your Mission
When you’ve written your mission, test it. Or, if you prefer a test-driven approach, use these questions to drive your mission development:
Is this mission something the people in this group can do?
Is this mission something the people in this group have the interest, capabilities, and talent to do?
Does this mission create opportunities for the group and the organization as a whole?
Is this mission unique, or does it describe some unique value?
Is it clear what is inside the scope of this mission, and what is outside the scope?
Does the mission drive action?
Make sure your mission has an action verb. Make sure it draws boundaries around the work so you can see what work you should be doing and see the work you should not be doing.
If you’ve worked on the mission alone, make sure you check with the team to test it. You can’t know whether you have it all right until you test the mission. Review your mission for traps, and eliminate them.
Make the Mission Real for Everyone
Middle managers define a more tactical mission based on the organization’s mission, especially if your senior management has not defined an actionable mission. You’ll need to define a mission with tactical parts. That way, the first-level managers can use your mission to refine theirs.
Inspiring and Tactical Missions Are Tough to Write
I was trying to run two independent groups. To the SQA group that was a test group, I provided all the process work. In addition, I was managing a second-line support group, which took the problems the regular support group couldn’t handle.
I had two independent groups, not one team. I managed those groups not because it made sense to put them together but because they weren’t development. I wanted to describe these two groups in some way that made sense to everyone in the groups as well as the rest of the organization.
I started with each separate team and worked with them to define their missions. The test group used “Assess the state of the product at any time and report on that state.” The second-line support group developed this mission: “Become the go-to experts in several areas of the system and respond to problems within four working days.”
On the face of it, there’s no commonality between the two groups. But both groups provided valuable in-depth expertise for much of the system. In four half-hour chunks over four weeks, we developed a mission for my group as a whole: “Provide system-level expertise to the development groups.”
It was worth taking the time. Our mission was inspiring enough for my two teams and helped explain a little about what we did. It was tactical enough and helped us determine when work was outside of our scope.
If you’re in middle management, resist the temptation to use jargon or buzzwords. Take the time to write a real mission for your group, whether they are a variety of teams as mine were or whether they have more commonality.
Now Try This
Look at your mission now, whether you are a technical lead, a manager, a middle manager, or a senior manager. Is it actionable? Does it say what’s in your purview and what’s not?
If you have a mission at your level, make a date with your peers and develop your joint mission so you know how to work across a department or a whole organization. Test your mission to make sure you haven’t fallen into any traps.
Start Somewhere…But Start
You’ve seen how to collaborate across the organization and manage the project portfolio. In my work, I’ve seen managers with more challenges: how to manage the project portfolio when you’re the only one, and how to start.
You’re the Only One Managing the Project Portfolio
You’ve looked at all these possibilities for visualizing and managing your project portfolio. You still have a ton of in-progress work. You have features for new projects, emergencies for older projects, maintenance for prior releases, and who knows what else.
Maybe you have so much fire-fighting from not managing the project portfolio it will take you a while to work yourself out of the hole you’re in. Maybe you have many projects in the maintenance phase of the product lifecycle. The team has to create features and fix defects and otherwise support the previous and current products. Whatever the reason, you have many projects in progress.
Here are my recommendations:
1. Start with the low-level view of the project portfolio so you can see all the work. Create a kanban of all your project states.
2. Add WIP limits for each column.
3. Consider using agile approaches for your work. I recommend you make the features small—as in no longer than one day in duration. Keeping features small will help the people doing the work accomplish the work faster because they are less likely to be stuck in any one state.
4. Ask the team to pair or swarm on the work. When people collaborate to fix one problem or accomplish work, they are more likely to collaborate on future work.
5. Ask the product owner to develop a product roadmap for each project your team works on. Make sure the roadmap has deliverables, and a demonstrable interim product at least once every month, if not more often.
6. Make sure the team finishes work to “done” so no one has the multitasking later for fixes.
Working like this establishes a flow of deliverables. That should help you manage your project portfolio. It might help product owners decide what they really need to see as deliverables.
What if I Have Many Product Owners Asking My Team for Work?
Some people co-opt agile terms without understanding their meaning. A product can have a product manager, and if it’s a large program, it might have several product owners. However, a team can have one and only one product owner to direct the flow of work through the team.
If your team has more than one product owner, you need to remove that impediment. I don’t care what your title is. You might be a manager, a Scrum Master, a project manager, even a group manager. If you are a leader helping a team finish its work, address the impediment of multiple product owners.
You will never eliminate the multitasking unless you fix the issue of multiple product owners.
The Case of the Interfering Customer
I had this problem of multiple product owners back when I was a program manager. We had a product manager who created the roadmap. We had product owners who updated the roadmap and reviewed our progress. We also had a customer who had the phone numbers for some of the developers.
The customer felt it was his job to call developers and ask them for feature estimates. He also asked people to “do this feature instead of that one.” The customer thought he was “helping.” Instead, he was slowing our development. I could not depend on people to finish what they thought they could. The customer interrupted them.
When I realized what was happening, I did these things:
1. I explained to the developers that they could not say yes to anything the customer requested. The only discussion they could have was about the weather, and when the customer wanted to talk to me.
2. I explained to the product manager that he had to talk to the customer much more often.
3. I called the customer and explained the developers would no longer talk with him. If he wanted features in a different order, he could call the product manager. If the product manager was not sufficiently responsive, the customer could call me.
4. I created a board that showed the problem of many requests to all of my contacts.
Both the product manager and customer were angry with me. The product manager wanted more flexibility in his phone calls. The customer wanted more flexibility in when he received which features.
I explained to the product manager that this customer was the prime customer for this product. We couldn’t do a general release until the customer was happy. Why did he want to take any other calls?
We needed to satisfy this customer. I explained to the customer that we would have monthly demonstrations so he could see our progress. He had never seen working product demonstrated from any of his vendors before.
We demonstrated the first set of features a month after we all agreed to this new approach. We finished more features than the product manager had planned. The customer was thrilled with our progress. He had comments on some of our features, and that was fine.
If you have trouble managing the work that flows into your team, check to see where the work is coming from. Do you have the problem of too many product owners?
You might have to facilitate a product owner meeting/project portfolio management meeting for your team. Make sure you create a board that shows other people your problem.
Can I Really Do This?
As I was writing this blog, one of my reviewers asked, “Can people really do this? What if their senior management has no clue? What if their middle management has no clue?”
Yes. You can do this. You can do this if your senior management has no strategic plan and doesn’t know about project portfolio management. You can do this even if your middle management has no clue.
Look at what you are able to manage, and use the portfolio to provide direction to your team, finish projects, increase your capacity, and provide better answers to your managers.
You can manage the project portfolio at your level of influence. You can work in timeboxes, finishing features, completing chunks of work. Or you can limit the work in progress so you can complete chunks of work.
You can decide what to do now, what to do later, and what to put off so you effectively never do it. You can work with your peers and make these decisions so that you as a team can complete projects and release them.
Managing the entire project portfolio is easy when senior management has a strategic plan and manages to that plan. It’s not too difficult if the middle managers understand how to think strategically and tactically even if your senior management isn’t so good at strategic planning.
Managing the project portfolio is difficult if you’re the only one doing it, no matter what level you are. If you’re a first-line manager or a technical lead, you may feel as if you’re pushing a boulder uphill.
Remember, you can change yourself. You can change your reactions to the work around you. You can offer an alternative to your colleagues and managers. You can’t change anyone else.