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Agency Leadership – 10 Lessons from 25 years Experience

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Agency leadership in challenging times

Thankfully we appear to have light at the end of the tunnel with regards to controlling the spread of COVID-19 here in the UK. The last 12 months have been a battle for all of us on so many levels. Running any type of business has been a huge challenge. Agencies have struggled, but unlike people in hospitality, at least we’ve been able to trade during the lockdowns (albeit in very challenging circumstances). The impact of Coronavirus has tested our agency leadership abilities to their limits.

Throughout the pandemic I’ve seen so many examples of agency owners stepping up and leading their business through the dark times. Not all have succeeded of course, but I know plenty of agencies that have not only survived but thrived. Regardless of their performance, all agency leaders have my admiration for the way they’ve stepped up.

Sadly, the tough times are not over. As yesterday’s budget illustrated, the post COVID-19 economy will take years to repair. It’s not politicians that will do this of course, it’s business people and their staff that will fuel the recovery. Many skills will be required to make it happen, but leadership will be paramount in getting agencies, and the country as a whole, back on its feet.

Agencies need leading more (not less)

Despite their increasing utilisation of technology, agencies are people businesses. The business model relies on the talent of its staff. The expertise and ability of its people is vital to the success of any agency.

Regardless of how talented they are individually, all successful groups of people need great leadership. Lack of effective leadership is one of the major reasons why agencies fail to achieve their potential.

Some people would have you believe that modern business with its digital technology, flat organisation structures, agile methodologies and the attitudes of the younger workforce, means that leadership is not as important as it once was. I fundamentally disagree. Leadership remains a critical success factor for any organisation. It will be paramount in surviving and thriving commercially in the years to come.

 

Leadership can be learned

Leadership is not for everyone of course. Many believe leaders are born not made. I certainly think that it helps if you have a natural aptitude and desire for leadership, but leadership skills can be developed over time if the desire and need exists. 

Some agency owners find they reach a ceiling when their business grows to a certain level. They started their agency for different reasons than to lead a group of people. Many never aspired to be the leader of an organisation at all. Success has forced them into that position.

Whilst natural talent is important, leadership skills can be learned. Expensive courses are not necessarily required for this to happen either. Experience counts for a lot, but I always think the catalyst for great leadership is self-awareness.

If you understand and appreciate your own strengths and weaknesses you can improve, compensate and utilise other people to support you in leading a business. Developing self-awareness as a leader will strengthen not only your individual performance but your agency performance as well. Self-awareness is a journey that doesn’t have a finish line. It’s an ongoing process of learning and adapting.

Top 10 Agency Leadership Lessons

In my 25 years of working in and leading agencies, I’ve certainly become more self-aware. I’ve also learnt a few things about leadership over the years (mostly from observing other people and their leadership qualities). I’ve taken my leadership lessons from all sorts of sources both inside and outside of agencies. I’ve even looked to people like Sir Alex Ferguson, who, as an ardent Manchester City fan I struggle to like, but can’t help but admire.

I’ve excelled at some aspects of leadership (and struggled with others). In a time when effective leadership is more important than ever, I’ve listed my Top 10 leadership lessons below. They’re in no particular order of importance, but they’re ALL important:

1 – BE CONSISTENT – Agency leaders are bright people who are full of ideas. This can mean they’re often flying around in all different directions. Unfortunately, this can lead to inconsistent working and decision-making. Consistency builds trust and trust in any leader is vital. Develop what I call a leadership rhythm. Weekly and monthly habits where your people can expect to hear, see or interact with you.

2 – REMAIN FOCUSED – Working “on” the business is important, but there’s a fine balance here. Don’t get bogged down in the detail, but don’t expect what you don’t inspect. Make it your business to periodically look under the bonnet of the agency to make sure you like what you see.

3 – RETAIN OWNERSHIP – The people that own the client relationships own the agency. Delegation and empowerment of the team are vital (as are contractual agreements), but don’t remove yourself too far from the client base that you become invisible. You never know when you might need to step back in.

4 – STAY ACCESSIBLE – Don’t distance yourself from your people. Even if you have an effective management team, don’t build barriers between yourself and the people in the agency. “Come to me with solutions not problems” is an overused phrase in my opinion. The day that people stop coming to you with their problems is the day you’re no longer an effective leader.

5 – COMMUNICATE (LIVE) – Always communicate in person whenever you can. Don’t hide behind email, Zoom or Slack. Technology cannot beat getting the agency all together in a room and speaking to them (when that’s possible of course). Do this regularly, even if it’s not in your comfort zone or something you enjoy.

6 – INSPIRE DON’T CLONE – Diversity in all its forms is a wonderful thing. Be clear on what attributes and personalities work best in your agency, but don’t try and recruit everybody in your own image. The values need to be more or less aligned, but not everybody needs to be the same type of personality. You’re amazing, but your way is not the ONLY way. Inspire don’t dictate the agenda.

7 – RESIST COMPLEXITY – Great leaders are great simplifiers. Your team will get frustrated with the added complexity of constant shifts in direction. They’ll thank you for making their lives simpler and easier.

8 – EMBRACE CHANGE – As your agency grows your leadership style must grow with it. Some tried and trusted methods and approaches must remain, but you must adapt. As your agency gets bigger and more complex, you can’t lead it in the same way you did when there was a handful of you sat around a few desks. 

9 – EXPECT LONELINESS – The responsibility of leadership is often hard to bear and a lonely occupation. Try and surround yourself with trusted partners or advisors to help share the burden and allow you to discuss your ideas and vent your frustrations in a safe space away from the wider team.

10 – ENJOY YOURSELF – Have fun. Don’t always try and run at breakneck speed or take it too seriously. Don’t always be chasing the next client or looking to the future. Relish what you have and enjoy the people and business you have around you.

What have you learned about agency leadership?

So there you have it, my Top 10 agency leadership lessons. It’s not an exhaustive list and I’m sure I’ll have missed some important factors.

If you can think of any glaring omissions, let me know at gareth.healey@beyond-noise.com. I’d love to hear about them.

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Gareth Healey
Gareth is the founder of Beyond Noise. He has 25 years experience in the agency sector. A business coach and mentor, he works exclusively with ambitious owner-directors of established independent marketing agencies.
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Agency Leadership – 10 Lessons from 25 years Experience
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