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Author: Gareth Healey

How to win agency awards

How to win agency awards – 10 top tips 

Even though the events themselves are currently restricted due to Coronavirus, the awards schemes have been in full swing online. I should know, I’ve judged the Prolific North AwardsUK App Awards and the Northern Marketing Awards in the past few months alone. Awards are here to stay. But how to win agency awards? It’s a question every agency owner has asked themselves at some point. 

Despite my judging exploits, you might be surprised to learn I actually I have a love-hate relationship with awards…

I love the awards themselves. They’re great for the industry and great morale boosters for the teams that win them or get shortlisted. And let’s face it, we all need as much good news as we can get right now. 

I hate it when agencies use the fact that they have won awards as the central part of their value proposition though. Please don’t do this. There must be something more unique or distinctive about you than awards. I do believe that awards can add authority to your offer. They can certainly act as a point of interest. They just shouldn’t be THE thing about your agency.

So what advice would I give agency owners on how to win awards? Building on the piece I wrote about the D-E-S-I-R-E to win last year, here’s my 9 top tips based on my recent judging experience.

1. Enter Awards(!)

The first piece of advice I have in how to win agency awards is simple; enter them! You’ve got to be in it to win it as the saying goes. The awards I’ve judged recently have generated a good number of submissions, but there was certainly room for more. Some categories were under represented and a lot of the same agency names appear year after year. All credit to these firms, but make sure you’re in the mix to give them some competition.

2. Enter a category you are capable of winning

There are usually plenty of categories to enter in the various awards schemes. Please choose your categories carefully. Whilst you might aspire to win “Global Agency of the Decade”, if you’ve only been in business for 18 months it’s unlikely to happen for a couple of years yet. However, that B2B campaign you’ve just completed for your biggest client that achieved stellar results on a modest budget is definitely worthy of entering “B2B campaign of the Year”. It might not be quite as high profile or glamourous, but its an award you can win. That’s how to win agency awards!

3. Enter award-winning material

Another obvious, but nevertheless an important piece of wisdom comes in the form of quality. Make sure your entry represents great work. At the very least make sure its the best work you’ve done.  As much as I’m advocating that you enter awards, they will still be around next year. If you don’t have something that you believe worthy of not just getting you on the shortlist, but carrying home the prize (or at least getting it posted out to you), maybe wait until you have.

4. Objectives – Have them. Make them measurable. Exceed them.

It’s number 4 on this list, but it’s the number 1 frustration of both myself and all the award judges I speak to. To win agency awards, your campaign or agency simply must have clearly defined SMART objectives.  In your entry, you must not only communicate these effectively but also clearly demonstrate how the objectives were reached and – ideally – exceeded. Without question, poor objectives lead to lower marks.

5. Make your submission count

A close second to poor objectives on the judges’ list of frustrations is when an agency goes to the time and expense of submitting an award but doesn’t make it count. Most awards have some form of word count on the entry form to stop the entries being too long. This is understandable, but the number of times I’ve seen the word count not even met frankly astounds me. It’s not about the number of words of course, but the quality of the submissions is often poorly thought through and lacking in impact. Get a copywriter or award consultant to write the entry for you, if you don’t think you can do it justice. Treat the entry form like a pitch, not an application form!

6. Answer the questions

Another simple piece of advice is to make sure you answer the questions(!) Your entry will be judged on your answers, not how much you want to tell the judges what a great team you have or just how much the client likes you. Just like in an exam, if you miss the main point of the question and go off on a tangent, you can easily lose vital marks.

7. Supporting material

Some award schemes allow you to supply supporting material in addition to the award entry form. Always do this if you are permitted to do so. Your entry will look poor and unfinished if you don’t submit additional material and the other agencies do. Remember to keep it short and to the point though. A single-page summary with some visuals is far more impactful than a 12-page pitch deck or strategy document.

8. Challenges – make them big and make them unique.

 

Some agency awards ask you to demonstrate how you’ve overcome challenges during the year. COVID-19 is likely to dominate this subject for a few years to come. If you do choose the impact of the pandemic, remember to show how you’ve done things differently to your peers. If you want to use other challenges to demonstrate your agency’s resilience then please choose an important subject. I’ve been through enough office moves to know they’re a pain, but changing offices is hardly a major test for a business like an agency these days. 

9. Make it Simple for the Judges

I’m going to let you into a secret. I’ve judged 3 agency award schemes in the past 3 months. Each one has taken me over a day to complete the judging. At first, I thought it was just me until a fellow judge volunteered the fact that they took a day over a particular scheme as well. I’m not looking for sympathy here, my point is to make your entry as easy to understand and as brief as possible. Judges don’t have the time to sift through lots of complex information. If you help them to digest the entry easily, you will secure more marks.

10. Read the criteria

Finally, following on from my point above, you can make the judges lives a lot easier by reading the judging criteria. All award schemes publish these. When judging you can really tell which entries are from people that have read the brief and understand exactly what criteria the judges will be looking for. 

Industry Rewards

The events sector is going through a particularly tough time at the moment. Although we can’t enjoy the social benefits of getting together over a few beers whilst we hear who has won, entering awards is still important for the industry and for your agency profile. I hope this article has given you some tips and reminders on how to win agency awards.




AGENCY HEALTH CHECK

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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.

Is it time to exit the agency business?

Maybe it’s time for me to exit the agency business and do something else?
 
I’ve heard these words more than a few times in the past few months. It’s understandable. The pandemic has not only disrupted our personal lives, it’s affected every business. 
 
COVID-19 has brought few positives. If there are any, it’s the way it’s encouraged us to reflect more. What do we want from our lives? Are we happy? What’s important to us? What are our priorities now?
 
The virus has led all business owners to take stock. Some of you will be more positive about your business than others. But it’s not surprising many are considering making big changes. Including taking their agency, or even themselves, in a completely different direction.

Staying Positive

They say there’s always somebody in a worse position than you are. Whilst the agency sector has been hit hard, at least our business model allows us to react quickly to things. Even when those things are unprecedented global pandemics.
 
Whilst I’m sure it’s little comfort for those of you in survival mode and/or facing difficult decisions, there are industries with more challenges than agencies. You only have to look at the hospitality, events or travel sectors to see this. Agencies are fortunate in that we’ve been able to furlough staff and reduce a large part of our running costs. We haven’t had to sit and watch perishable stock spoil and become worthless. We’ve not been closed down or forbidden to trade by law.
 
There are positive signs for the future for us  too. We’ve seen a massive acceleration in the adoption of digital technology. Businesses that were previously operating without digital capabilities, have made huge strides. The general public have become more digitally savvy. This digital leap forward is bound to present opportunities for agencies in the coming months.

Green grass syndrome

Agency folk are a resilient bunch. They have to be. Even without a pandemic to contend with, the life of an agency owner is a rollercoaster ride. Massive highs are punctuated with significant lows. High profile client wins can be soon be followed by sobering client losses. The euphoria of winning an award can be quickly dampened by the unexpected resignation of a key team member.
 
Sadly, even before COVID, it wasn’t uncommon to hear agency owners thinking of making a change and coveting greener pastures…
 
“There must be easier businesses than the agency business?”
 
“I want to run something that is scalable and less hands on”.
 
Sound familiar? I’ve heard these sorts of statements many times. And yes, I admit, I’ve uttered similar things myself in the past (usually after a few beers at the end of a particularly tough week).
 
I understand these sentiments, but it’s taken me 25 years in business – not a pandemic – to realise that they’re misplaced and wasted words. The grass is rarely greener elsewhere. A global recession or not, no business is easy. Whilst other types of businesses might be more scalable, it is possible to grow an agency. Most importantly, I’m a passionate believer that no successful business can be run with a “light touch”.

In search of the perfect business model

It’s never been easy and it’s rarely dull. Running an agency requires guts, determination and resilience. Whilst most of you will have dusted yourselves down, summoned these traits and already be going again, what about those that are feeling that the agency business has lost its allure? What are the alternatives?
 
Earlier this week I started to ponder the perfect business model. If the agency business wasn’t it, what is the ideal type of business to run? Whilst I quickly concluded that the perfect business doesn’t exist. I did draft a set of 12 criteria that if, if satisfied, would get you pretty close.
So if I was aiming to find the perfect business – any business – in 2020, what would it look like? 
 
What attributes would it have? 
 
Can an agency business measure up?
 
1. It would sell a product that people need or desire at almost any price. My son is doing Economics A Level and tells me this is called inelastic demand. Clever lad, it’s a big ask though!
 
2. It would sell to an unlimited global market. A little easier to achieve. The world gets smaller everyday. Better suited to service based businesses too.
 
3. It would sell a product that cannot easily be copied. Or at least it can be copyrighted or patented. Unique products are hard to find, but IP can be established and protected.
 
4. It would be a business that is moveable. It would not be fixed to a single location and could move with the business owner or be operated remotely. Flexible working even extends to business ownership these days.
 
5. It would enjoy low overheads. It wouldn’t need large amounts of raw materials or a large stock inventory etc. A business with high overheads is less agile and can’t adapt to changing circumstances or environments.
 
6. It would satisfy the intellectual needs of the owner. Boredom is the scourge of many business owners. There is nothing better than being fascinated by what you do.
 
7. It wouldn’t be capital intensive. It wouldn’t require large capital investment in equipment, R&D or product development. Funding is not going to be easy to find in the next few years.
 
8. It would be relatively easy to get paid.  A perfect business shouldn’t have to wait too long to get paid or use complex credit terms. Cash has always been King but this applies now more than ever.
 
9. It wouldn’t be reliant on large numbers of people to operate it. The fewer people the better. Less headaches, less management time, less cost.
 
10. It wouldn’t be limited by the personal input of the owner (time and attention). A business that can operate and grow without you at the helm 24/7. 
 
11. It would be – truly – scaleable. It can serve 10,000 customers as easily as it can serve 1. Scalability is not the same as growth.
 
12. It wouldn’t be heavily regulated. It would be largely free of government restrictions, laws or regulations. This is not as straightforward as it was 6 months ago!
 

How does your agency perform?

So there you have it, the 12 ingredients of a perfect business. Does your agency business perform against all 12 criteria? 
 
Congratulations if it comes anywhere close. The reality is even the best businesses will struggle to tick all those boxes.
 
When I did this exercise, what surprised me wasn’t that I couldn’t think of a business idea that met all those lofty expectations. What surprised me was that I felt that if I ran an agency business at the moment, I would actually be quite pleased at how well it stacked up.
 
Whilst clearly most agencies are reliant on people and their owners, the agency model has its benefits. Low overheads, low regulation and flexibility of location are all strengths of an agency. They don’t need high capital investment, there are low barriers to entry and they can sell to anybody – even global markets – with relative ease.
 
What stood out for me most though was the importance of the intellectual challenge. Owning any business is certainly not dull at the moment. What I think matters most in running an agency business is that you love the work. If you’re fascinated by what you do, or could be again, it’s one of the most important and satisfying factors of running any business
 
So what is my message to those people who are thinking looking outside of the agency business for their futureIt’s very simple. Please make sure you’re not being tempted by green grass syndrome and that your agency mojo has completely gone before making a big decision. These are tough times for everybody, but agency businesses are very flexible. If you4 agency doesn’t quite meet every criteria above, which ones could you work on? Could you develop your own IP? Sell to different markets? Structure the agency so that it could at least run with not quite as much of your input in the future?
 
Whatever you do or decide….enjoy the journey.
 
 

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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.

Challenges, opportunities and priorities for agency leaders

I was a guest on The Digital Marketing Hub monthly webinar last week. The brief was to give my views on the challenges and opportunities for agency leaders both now and beyond the crisis. A – very – tough brief.

Here’s a summary of my thoughts: 

Where to start?

To begin with a positive, I certainly think that this crisis has brought the agency sector together more (as it has our society as a whole). Despite the restrictions, I’ve seen more agency owners talking and trying to help and advise each other than ever before. Nobody would want these circumstances, but it’s great to see this in what is a very competitive and often protective industry.

People have said to me that agencies are all in the same boat. I don’t agree. I think we’re certainly all in the same storm but each agency (and business) has its own unique circumstances. Some are in small agile boats but without a lot of fuel, others are larger vessels that are harder to manoeuvre. Most are somewhere in between. 

As things stand…

Because of this dynamic and the unique situation, it’s extremely difficult to offer general advice or guidance to agencies. This is far from a factual study, but from the people I’m talking to, numerous webinars I’ve attended and several surveys I’ve seen both here and in the US, the sentiment amongst agencies appears to me to be as follows:

60% think that they’re (sort of) OK. It feels like just over half of independent agencies are – reasonably – comfortable. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t know anybody that’s happy or thriving, but these agencies think they can weather the storm.

30% of agencies are struggling and are in survival mode. They’re taking drastic action including furloughing large numbers of staff and cutting costs. These agencies are either usually relatively new or have had significant client work paused or cancelled altogether. 

10% of agencies are already in big trouble. They’re already saying that it will be a miracle if they can survive, if not the lockdown period, but certainly the economic conditions that are going to follow. Lack of cash is the main reason for their sensitivity to the situation.

This is broadly how I see the market at the moment. Whether you agree with my “temperature check” or not, I hope your agency is in the 60% group (or at least can make it into it). Sadly I’m sure that in the next 12 months we’ll see many agencies struggle and the 10% group may well increase.

Challenges & Opportunities

Individual agencies in unique situations are facing a perfect storm that the entire world is locked in.  General advice is difficult but despite the nuances and complexity of the situation, I’ve attempted to capture what I see as the Top 3 challenges and the corresponding opportunities for independent agencies.

1. Leadership

Effective leadership is an important ingredient for any successful business of course, but in testing times it can be the thing that decides whether the business survives or not. There has never been a bigger challenge for agencies than there is now. Leadership could be the difference.

Providing leadership is extremely tough at the moment though. It’s incredibly difficult to plan at the moment. Uncertainty is literally everywhere and providing your team with a vision for the future is hard many of our lives practically on hold.

Leaders know that this is a situation that will not be over quickly. Even when some sort of normal working conditions return, the economic backdrop will be extremely tough. It’s going to be a long haul and agency leaders will need immense stamina, guts and determination to see it through.

A leadership role can often be lonely, but the current crisis exacerbates this. For agency leaders, the stress of trying to make tough decisions whilst remaining motivating and optimistic can be difficult to cope with. For agency staff, the future of the business is important. For agency owners it’s often their entire hopes and dreams.

Working from home under lockdown has been difficult for most, despite what technology has enabled us to do. I’ve spoken to agency leaders though that are finding it a real challenge. They want to be with the team in person, they’re working harder than ever, and as many have pointed out to me, they feel they’re always in the office. Even when they’re away from their home desk for a few hours, people have said they feel guilty as they wonder if they could be doing more to support the business.

On a brighter note, this period is a challenge but also an opportunity for agency leaders. If your agency can survive this situation, the experience and knowledge you will have accumulated will make you a much better leader for the future. Personal growth often comes out of adversity.

Whilst nobody is happy, I’ve seen some agency owners energised by the situation (to some degree). I’ve seen enthusiasm come back from people running agencies that were perhaps a little demotivated and coasting before all this happened. The fire is back in their bellies. Long may that continue, it will be needed.

2. Operations

Clearly there are some huge operational challenges for anybody running a business at the moment. As agencies, unlike say the hospitality sector, we are at least able to operate from home and at a distance reasonably well. Nevertheless, it’s a real balancing act.

People are the lifeblood of agencies, and looking after them in these difficult times is a priority for every agency owner. Furloughing and other measures have been adopted by many, but it is incredibly difficult to choose the right course of action for both the agency and the people within it.

Most agency leaders I speak to have had their clients pause work in some way. Either retainers/fees or project work. Some agencies have been heavily impacted by this, others only mildly so far. All agency leaders understand their clients’ situations and emphasise with them. Nevertheless, it’s causing huge difficulties in deciding what people resources an agency needs to operate effectively during the lockdown.

Agencies have all been forced to review their entire cost base and do some really detailed financial planning over the past few weeks. Most now have a clearer idea of what cash runway they have and what steps they need to take. Unfortunately, we all know this crisis will have many twists and turns before it is over. Many agencies will find the forecasts impacted by clients failing to pay when they said they would. Some clients may not even survive themselves, of course, leaving a hole in the agency cashflow and future revenue.

Agency leaders are facing really tough decisions, but as an owner of a business, there’s a real balance between making tough decisions and being optimistic and positive.

The opportunity here is to come out of this with a different business. One that may be smaller than before, but will also be leaner and more efficient. This is inevitable for most, as the world will not go back to complete normality. Many of us will come out with different businesses, different business models even. All of us will come out with different ways of working.

I know a few agency leaders who were quite sceptical about utilising remote working before the crisis. I admit to being in this mindset myself a few years ago. The power of the agency has always been the interaction of the team all together in the office for me. These agency leaders though are now often buoyed by their team’s approach and attitude during the pandemic and some have become complete converts to the remote working model. That said, on this particular issue, a do think there is a bit of honeymoon period that is starting to falter. People and productivity are becoming a little strained in some cases.  

3. New Business

Finally, last but by no means least, the third major challenge I see is the need for new business. Franky, new business would have featured on my Top 3 list of agency challenges before the virus. It’s a constant issue for all agencies. Almost overnight, it’s suddenly become even more important, and – if it were possible – even more competitive than ever.

I’m seeing all agencies up the ante on new business. Many of them are not necessarily desperate to gain or replace new business right now. They simply recognise the challenges ahead and know from experience that new business is often a long sales cycle.

I’m also seeing many agencies reporting that whilst their new business pipeline has not completely dried up, there has been the inevitable pausing of decisions. What was once warm leads have suddenly gone quiet. Just like existing clients pausing work, agencies can appreciate the reasons for this of course. Prospective clients are, like the rest of us, are occupied with operational issues and trying to get their company through the lockdown.

Perhaps the most distressing thing I’ve witnessed is agency owners realising that their new business pipeline, and maybe even the people and processes they have in place in this area, are not what they thought they were. Having reviewed all aspects of their operations, some agency leaders have been shocked to find the pipeline wasn’t as healthy as they thought – or were being told – it was. That said, I also know many people that have got a good pipeline and they’re pretty positive about it. Indeed, I’ve seen agencies pitch for and win some significant new clients and projects in the last few weeks alone.

I think the opportunity out of this is to come out with a sharper and more focused business. An agency that is better positioned more effectively targeted. A business that is more strategically aligned but also more executionally sound and fit for the future.

What to prioritise?

What would I be prioritising as an agency owner right now? 

  1.    Planning – All agency leaders and business owners I’ve met have developed some sort of emergency plan for COVID-19. Most have a had a decent go at planning the next 3 months. We all know these plans will change, but it’s vital to have some sort of roadmap. Whilst I see lots of people with a Plan A, I don’t see as many with a Plan B or a Plan C (different scenarios based on further account losses, pausing or none payment of invoices). This clearly involves both more work and confronting more scary outcomes, but I believe its a worthwhile exercise to be better prepared. Whatever you do as agency leaders, even if you have a robust plan, stay close to the detail for the foreseeable future. Now is a time for stepping in, not stepping back.

 

  1. Regular transparent communication – You can’t over-communicate to your team, clients or suppliers/partners at the moment. Even if you’ve not got anything particular to tell them, make sure the channels of communication stay open.  If you just don’t know what to say, I suggest briefing your team on some scenarios to explain what might happen i.e. if x happens then we’re going to do y. People, in particular Gen Z members of your team, would prefer to understand the full picture than being left in the dark. Don’t protect your team from the realities of the situation you are in. They need – and want – to understand 

 

  1. Lead Gen and New Business – If you had previously stepped back from the frontline of this and/or are less than 100% satisfied with your sales team then as the agency owner any remaining time you have would best be spent in this area. Even if the lead gen work is covered, re-thinking and improving the new business strategy and providing input into current opportunities are all time well spent for agency leaders under the current restrictions.

Final Thought

The Stockdale Paradox is a quote by Admiral James Stockdale, a POW in Vietnam. It was referenced in Jim Collin’s book Good to Great. Admiral Stockdale said:

“You must never ever ever confuse faith that you can prevail in the end with the need for the discipline to begin by confronting the brutal facts, whatever they are.”

The people who own and run agencies tend to be a positive, optimistic bunch. It’s one of the reasons why I love the agency world and it’s what makes agencies great places to work.

In times of hardship though, whilst you have to be able to retain a sense of optimism, you can’t let it cloud your judgement or stop you confronting and acting on issues quickly and decisively.

Referring to his time as a POW, Admiral Stockdale said that the ones that didn’t make it out of the horrors of captivity as well as he did were the optimists. He said “The optimists…they were the ones who always said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ Christmas would come and it would go. And there would be another Christmas. And they died of a broken heart.”

Optimism is crucial when you leading a team, but I don’t think we’re getting out of this situation – fully – by Christmas. Balance your optimism with the courage to confront the challenges your agency faces swiftly and head-on. You will get through this crisis and you will be a stronger agency and leader for it.

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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.

Coronavirus Advice for Agencies

Disclaimer…

This is a summary of our understanding of the current support being proposed by the UK Government as things stand 21st March 2020. It is intended as a quick guide for UK based SME agencies only and does not constitute financial advice.

You should check the details yourself or via your accountant before acting upon any of the information listed below.

This article is intended to make sense of the current support and give UK agency owners a helping hand as they cope with the changing world around them.

Wage Bill

The UK Government will cover 80% of the salary of furloughed workers (to a max of £2,500 per month) through the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme. Currently, this will cover 1st March to 31st May (but may be extended). Employers can choose to top up the salary (or not). Furloughed means that staff have no work and are not working for you. They will effectively be on a temporary leave of absence (they are not sick or on annual leave). You will need to designate affected employees as “furloughed workers” and notify them of this change. You will then need to submit information to the HMRC (details coming next week). It appears that the payments will be reimbursements i.e. you will need to pay staff first and claim back from HMRC.

Cashflow

If you have an existing loan, contact your provider and enquire about a repayment holiday and/or the Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme. The scheme will be administered by the British Business Bank but provided by 40 accredited lenders. You may have a relationship with one of them already. Finance products such as term facilities, overdrafts, invoice financing and asset finance will be available. More details will be available next week.

Eligibility criteria will apply but it’s designed for UK SMEs who will be unable to meet a lender’s normal lending criteria for a commercial loan or other facilities (but whose agencies are considered viable in the longer term). These facilities will be debt and the borrower will remain 100% liable for the debt. The Government will guarantee 80% of each loan giving lender’s security to make quick decisions. The Government will also cover the first 12 months of interest payments so businesses will have lower initial repayments

Tax

Agencies in financial distress with outstanding tax liabilities or those that are unable to make their next payment may be eligible for the HMRC’s Time to Pay scheme. Call HMRC’s dedicated helpline 0800 0159 559.

VAT

Payments will be deferred for 3 months (covering 20th March until 30th June). No application is required. You will not need to make a VAT payment during this period.

Sick Pay

Some agencies will have employment contracts offering more than SSP. If your agency only pays Statutory Sick Pay (£94.25 per week) this now comes into affect on day one of the employee not reporting for work due to COVID-19 (or choosing to self-isolate). The Government will refund up to 2 weeks SSP per eligible employee who has been off work due to COVID-19. Employers will need to pay the employee and reclaim from the Government.

Business Rates – If you are a small agency and already qualify for small business rate relief (SBBR), you may be entitled to a one-off grant of £10,000 to help you meet your ongoing costs.

Business Rates

If you are a small agency and already qualify for small business rate relief (SBBR), you may be entitled to a one-off grant of £10,000 to help you meet your ongoing costs.

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.

What makes an effective agency NXD?

What is an agency NXD?

Agency NXD, Non-Executive Director, Non-Exec, NED. Whatever terminology they use, many agencies are now utilising the skills of an experienced person who is not directly involved in the running of the business but supports the directors in its development.

NXDs are not the sole preserve of the agency sector of course, far from it. The role of an NXD originated and is widely used in larger companies and in particular PLCs across sectors. Indeed, an independent director who oversees the executives’ management of the company is a key requirement for many organisations whose shares are publicly traded.

Historically, these NXDs were very experienced retired or semi-retired former executives. Increasingly, NXDs are now younger and either employed as an executive at another company, running their own business or even operating as a portfolio NXD.

There are many benefits to having an NXD. They are particularly highly prized in larger companies. Stakeholders can take comfort in the fact that there is one, or often several, NXDs monitoring and challenging the activity of the executive team. As NXDs are not full-time they are comparatively cheaper and can act as a sounding board for directors and a safety net for non-director shareholders.

The role of an NXD

The role of an NXD is to hold the executives to account for the delivery of the business objectives.

NXDs are focused on 2 areas; governance and growth. Whilst good governance is crucial to any organisation. In a smaller business, and in most independent agencies, it is the pursuit of growth that usually takes precedence.

Running any business can be exhilarating, fulfilling, challenging and frustrating. When you’re running an agency you can experience all these emotions in a single afternoon! 

Its a cliche of course but it can be lonely at the top of an organisation. As an agency principal, even if you’re not a sole director, it can feel like you have nobody to turn to for advice or counsel. Balancing the demands of your clients and your people can seem like an impossible task.

Having a supportive agency NXD who understands your challenges and has walked in your shoes can be of great asset to your business.

It is appreciated that NXDs cannot give the same continuous attention to the business of the agency. However, it is important that they show the same commitment to its success as their executive colleagues. 

The characteristics of a good NXD

NXDs are usually selected for their personal qualities, experience and specialist knowledge. Its vital that they not only possess wisdom, but are familiar with current trends and developments.

Some of the key characteristics of good NXDs are:

– Independence – it’s crucial an NXD has a strong relationship with their exec colleagues but retaining a level of independence is key. It not only provides objective scrutiny but enables the NXD to maintain a “helicopter view”. They must not get too close to the business so that they can’t see the bigger picture. This is usually why the directors need an NXD in the first place.

– Challenging but supportive – the NXD must be able to probe and challenge without creating conflict. They need to be constructive and diplomatic so they can ask difficult questions whilst offering support and guidance on problematic issues.  Mutual trust is vital.

– Courage and integrity – NXDs must have strong principles and the courage to stand up and say if they feel something is wrong or risky. Despite being engaged by the business, they require the courage to disagree.

· Great communication skills – they must be able to communicate complex ideas clearly and without being dictatorial. They should command respect but listen and absorb information as much as they talk and have input.

– Deep understanding of the business – whether they have industry experience or not, they need to quickly understand the products/services, the culture, the management team and the customer base. 

– Breadth of experience – we are faced with more operational issues than ever before. Reputation management, health and safety, ethics, social responsibility, risk and technology are all vital areas to observe when running a business. Companies need NXDs with specific knowledge and experience to frame discussions around these areas.


My own experience

We had a total of 6 people who operated as our agency NXD over the 15 years I was running my agency.  A number of our NXDs had agency experience, others had very little agency knowledge at all. At the time, this was a conscious decision on our part. We wanted to work with people who had different perspectives. This included other agency experience but also client-side and similar businesses operating in different sectors.

Looking back, I consider the people with agency experience to have been more effective as they hit the ground running and needed less context around some of the issues we discussed.

We chose to work with one NXD at a time, but we could have appointed more than one person.  In hindsight, I think this would have further supported and accelerated our growth. That said, we were in a fortunate position. Not every agency has the ability to invest in one agency NXD, never mind two or more.

The benefits of an agency NXD

In addition to the benefits to the agency outlined above, one of the key things myself and my business partners wanted from an agency NXD was personal growth. We recognised that even if you are not the sole director, leading an agency can still be a lonely role. It can also be a hard position from which to achieve progress in personal development. You’re often fire-fighting and switching your attention between interacting with clients and staff. It can leave little time or outlet for you to develop your own skills.

I’m a believer that you can learn something every day from anybody, but even if you are working with incredible people as I was, there is a massive benefit to bringing in external knowledge, experience and opinion. It’s not just about expanding the gene pool though. You can get very comfortable and familiar with your business partners and work colleagues. Too comfortable. Challenging them and yourself to improve your performance in the agency can become harder as time goes on. 

When we sat down in a board meeting it was hard for us to challenge each other if certain actions hadn’t been completed. We usually knew what had taken priority instead and invariably we ourselves were in a similar situation.

With an NXD in attendance, we knew that they wouldn’t be aware or concerned by the reasons why certain objectives hadn’t been met. We all raised our game when it came to these meetings as we knew an external person was attending and we wanted to ensure we continued to make a good impression on them.

Thinking back to the non-execs we used, whilst they all brought different perspectives, support and additional knowledge to the table, the real benefit for us as directors of an agency was the added accountability they instilled in the business.

This was the real value I got out of working with an agency NXD.

Do you need an agency NXD?

If you’re agency owner considering working with an NXD, I would ask yourself 3 questions:

1. Why do I need an agency NXD?

2. What benefits do I want them to bring to the agency?

3. What sort of person do I want to work with?

The reality is nobody needs an agency NXD. They need somebody to help the problems they are facing.

I see a lot of agency owners considering agency NXDs as a new business channel. Independent directors can bring a larger network into your agency and this can, in theory, bring new client opportunities. In reality, I’ve never seen this really bear fruit. If this is the primary reason to appointing an agency NXD then I would think about the position again.

No matter what level of experience you have, there is always an opportunity to learn from others. Whilst an agency NXD is likely to have more experience than you, even if they don’t, they will definitely have different experiences than you. That said, it’s vital you think through and articulate what value you want them to bring to your business. How will you – and they – measure their success?

As with all recruitment, nobody really wants additional headcount. You want the value that a person can bring, not the role itself. Good chemistry is crucial though. You must connect and enjoy working with the agency NXD as much as you do the other members of the senior team.

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.

How to maximise opportunities in Voice Tech

Katy Bass of Altavox joins agency growth coach Gareth Healey on the first episode of The Beyond Noise Podcast.

Welcome to Episode 1 of The Beyond Noise Podcast. What better way to start a podcast series than to talk about voice! So in this first episode, we are talking all things voice tech.

Join Gareth Healey as he chats to voice strategist and CEO of Altavox, Katy Bass.

There is a revolution going on in the voice tech space and it offers huge opportunities for consumers, technology companies, marketers and agencies alike.

With technology and its applications moving so fast, it can be hard for agencies to keep pace with the opportunities that voice technology presents. In this episode, Gareth and Katy discuss how agencies can help their clients have conversations with their customers through Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant, IoT devices and more.

Agencies can help clients educate, inform, and entertain their customers through what many people – including Katy of course – believe is the next major marketing channel.

This podcast covers subjects such as voice strategy, conversation design and voice search (VEO).

Katy is a voice tech consultant and a digital strategist with a decade of experience helping businesses get ahead with emerging technologies.

She has worked with brands including Cancer Research UK, Expedia, the Co-Op, Topshop, and Chester Zoo. In 2019 she founded Altavox to help both brands and agencies navigate their way through the voice revolution. Katy is an international speaker on voice technology and runs the Voice Tech North meet-up group.

Altavox works directly with brands and/or as a consultant partner to marketing and digital agencies.

How to improve agency efficiency

How to improve agency efficiency

In this article, we’re going to look at how to improve agency efficiency with TIM WOODS. You would be forgiven for thinking TIM WOODS is a new member of the Beyond Noise team. Things are not always what they seem.

Every agency owner wants to increase the profitability of their business. The easiest way they think they can do this is to increase revenue.

Did I say easy? As we all know winning new business is the lifeblood of all agencies, but it’s far from easy and far from predictable. Improving profitability can be delivered not only through incremental business but improving your agency efficiency.

When my agency clients ask me how to improve agency efficiency, I introduce them to TIM WOODS. 

Sadly TIM WOODS is not a colleague of mine. Neither is he the good-looking guy pictured at the top of this article (that’s a stock image). TIM WOODS represents the 8 wastes of Lean.

Lean?

My own agency was a big operation. We employed 175 people across 2 offices. Although we grew it to that size, the business was established well before I was involved. We acquired the agency in a MBO in 2002. Despite being a creative agency, it was a business that thrived on process. It had to, as the volume of work my team produced in a year was quite staggering. The small number of errors that were made was equally impressive.

Having lots of processes in a business brings lots of benefits. However, it can also create some challenges (particularly where processes evolve, develop and are added over time).

My business was a successful agency and we ran a very effective and efficient operation. Nevertheless we were always thinking about how to improve agency efficiency.

We wanted to become more profitable of course, but we also wanted to be faster and more responsive for our clients> W wanted to make things simpler and easier for our people. In order to achieve this, we invested in deploying the principles of Lean.

Lean process thinking is a systematic approach to improving efficiency developed in the Japanese manufacturing industry. Lean is a huge topic in its own right. A key concept in Lean is the pursuit of reducing or removing waste – or Muda as the Japanese call it – in the process. 

Who is TIM WOODS then?

Lean is a large and multi-faceted subject. As a concept developed for the manufacturing industry, some of the principles and applications are not totally suited to marketing agencies.

However, I found the focus on identifying and removing waste in an organisation to be extremely useful when we were considering how to improve agency efficiency.

As you may have already gathered TIM WOODS is not a person but an acronym. TIM WOODS represents the 8 elements of waste:

Transportation, Inventory, Motion

Waiting, Over-Processing, Over-Production, Defects, Skills

When I utilised Lean in my own business, there were only 7 wastes, but the eighth  (Skills) has been added since. It’s a good one and particularly relevant for people based businesses like agencies.

 

How can TIM WOODS help agencies?

You might be forgiven for thinking waste is the preserve of manufacturing businesses or companies that work with raw materials, but waste has many forms.

Reducing waste in an agency improves efficiency. It increases the speed of delivery, productivity and profitability.

TIM WOODS helps to identify – often hidden – wastes in an agency and can be used as a principle to explore how to improve agency efficiency.

The biggest impact TIM WOODS has for me is how it can help to change our mindsets as agency owners.

When looking at how to improve agency efficiency, it’s common for agency people to want to add things. Additional reporting and adopting – more – software products are usually the first thing people think about.

The key to improving efficiency though is not to add, but to take things away. To reduce complexity not to add more layers. Complexity is the enemy of efficiency and wasted effort, resources, time etc all contribute to complexity.

Please don’t implement a new productivity app in your agency without first looking at the processes. Adding new software without looking at the process behind it may at best paper over the cracks, At worst it can add more complexity and added tasks to an already bloated system.  

Let’s have a look at what each waste means… 

 

Transportation

This refers to the unnecessary movement of materials or information. In an agency, this could mean transferring information between productivity software, databases and or documents.

Inventory

Most agencies don’t produce physical products. We do have inventory though in the form of tasks, projects, briefs etc. Work stuck in queues, inboxes or backlogs that are “in-progress” but not finished and delivered to the client can be considered as waste.

Motion

In a manufacturing business, this usually refers to the needless movement of people. This can apply in an agency setting (unnecessary travel to meetings for example), but it can also involve navigating numerous programs, databases and performing multiple clicks or actions to get to the desired result. Too much motion is bad for effiicency.

Waiting

Often a source of waste in an agency. Waiting for information to start or finish a task. Waiting for approval from other people in the agency or waiting for the client can be a huge source of inefficiency.

Over-Processing

Over-processing can be a result of too many processes in an agency. Often agencies accumulate processes over time. People may be doing things that are unnecessary because they are told: “that’s how it’s done here”. It might have been required once, but maybe not now?

Other forms or over-processing include producing elaborate and detailed reports when raw data would suffice, or producing numerous options or polishing creative work to a high standard (when simple concepts would be acceptable for now).

Over-Production

Producing work or completing tasks that the client either hasn’t requested or doesn’t value are often examples of where an agency can be creating over-production. On many occasions, this is unintentional or done in the mistaken belief that the client appreciates it.

Defects

Perhaps the biggest source of waste in most agencies. Amends, rework, iterations, revisions are all ways we use to rectify defects. They directly cost the agency both time and money as well as being a huge opportunity cost.

Skills

At some point, the 7 wastes of Lean became 8. Wasted talent is a vital one for agencies though. You may have people doing tasks or work that they are not suited to. Other people could be performing and producing for you to a much higher standard of quality or output in a different area, if only they were given the opportunity to do so.

Lean in…

You don’t have to be a certified Lean process Black Belt (yes that is a thing), to apply some of the principles of Lean. Just take a deep dive into your processes and ask questions. Lots of questions.

How can we do this simpler? Do we really need to do that at all? Why do you do it that way?

We talk a lot about code bloat in agencies. When you’re looking at how to improve agency efficiency, think about process bloat. How can you reduce waste and friction in the system to make your people, clients and accountant happier?

 

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.

Managing Millennials and Gen Z

Managing Millennials and Gen Z 

I was invited to speak at The Digital Marketing Hub event in Manchester recently. The organisers gave me free rein on what I wanted to speak about. It didn’t take me long to think of the subject matter; managing Millennials and Gen Z.

I have a deep interest in all aspects of leadership and management, but this is a subject that interests me for 3 reasons:

1. Personal Experience – I ran my own agency for 15 years and grew it to 175 staff. I learned a great deal about managing and leading people. I also learned was that no matter how much insight and experience you gain, the challenge of managing people is never finished. Its a game with no end as the rules are constantly shifting and evolving.

As I got older, naturally the age gap between myself and our younger team members grew wider. It was clear that the younger members of our team had different attitudes and wanted different things than I did. They needed to be managed, motivated and led differently. Of course, in hindsight, I made mistakes when I was managing people. Nothing serious, but there are certain things I could have done differently.  I was certainly influenced by the negative stereotyping that Millennials are plagued with.

2. Sector Challenges – One of the biggest challenges facing the agency sector is recruiting and retaining talent (of all ages). Young people, in particular, have far more choices and are in more demand than ever. How can you hope to recruit and retain people if you can’t manage them effectively in the way that they want to be managed? Beer fridges and ping pong tables are nice, but they’re not the answer to getting the most out of our young people (or them getting the most out of us as agency owners). 

3. My Clients – My agency clients frequently point to managing Millennials as a source of frustration. This applies to agency owners of a similar age to me as well as directors who are Millennials themselves. Usually, my agency clients are not concerned with how problematic it is for them. They genuinely want to understand more and upskill themselves to provide a better agency for their younger people to work in. 

The Generation Game

The exact dates of when “generations” start and end are often disputed. The figures below seem to represent a consensus. It can be useful to split Gen Y (Millennials) into 2 groups. Millennials have experienced such a volume of change in their lifetimes. The attitudes of older and younger members of Gen Y can vary significantly. People currently in their 30’s have different attitudes to those currently in their 20’s. This has been shaped by the sheer velocity of technological advancement. The recession of 2008 was also a big influence.

When I researched this article, I’m not sure which of these facts came as more of a shock…

The fact that, at 48, I’m an “older” member of Gen X?

The thought that Millennials can actually be as old as 38 years of age (not that I consider that old)?  

The revelation that Millennials already represent around 50% of the UK workforce. 

The realisation that older members of Gen Z have either already started their careers or will soon be leaving University?

Myths and Stereotypes

Given the age profile of Millennials its surprising that you often still hear people referring to them as young people. Even more surprising is the amount of myths and negative stereotypes that are still following this group around.

If you Google Millennials, the content is skewed towards negative sentiment. The “WE Generation”, the “Me Me Me Generation” are some of the labels they attract. Indeed, Millennials are accused online of killing everything from doorbells to entire industries (N.B. as a parent of Gen Zers,  I can bear witness to the redundant doorbell in my own home).

The traits of today’s younger generations are often called into question. They’re accused of being lazy, entitled, self-obsessed narcissists who lack loyalty and will hop from job to job without a moments thought. Despite the fact that many of these myths have been debunked by studies such as The Deloitte Global Millennial Survey, the stereotypes seem to linger.

Ultimately its a fact of life that older generations complain about the young. Even Peter the Hermit (born circa 1050) is said to have griped that young people “think of nothing but themselves”. Before you ask, no I didn’t know Peter!

Whatever the reasons, Managing Millennials and Gen Z employees is seen as a difficult task and remains a hot topic of conversation.

Breakfast anyone?

When my agency clients ask me how they can improve managing younger members of their team, my answer often surprises them; stop managing them(!) 

Young people don’t want to be managed (at least not in the way my generation did when we were at the early stage of our careers). Millennials want to be in an environment where they can thrive. The environment might be augmented by physical things such as quirky furniture, ping pong tables and the like, but its the company culture that really makes the difference.

Peter Drucker famously said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast”. This is something I’ve used to guide me throughout my career. His principle point that your people really make the difference, is particularly true for agencies.  Drucker died in 2005, but I’m sure if he was around today he would view the right culture as being paramount for motivating, nurturing and getting the best from young people in the workplace.

Company culture is a huge topic in its own right. Culture can’t be defined and created overnight. It’s borne out of the values of the agency (which are themselves heavily influenced by the values of the leaders of the business). Its effects are more wide-ranging and far-reaching than just the impact it may have on younger workers.

I’ve identified 4 key factors for agency owners to focus on in order to develop their culture in the right direction. This will enable the culture of the agency to support and influence how its younger team members interact, grow and perform.

INSPIRATION

Today’s young people want to be inspired. They want to work for a business with a purpose beyond just making money. A purpose, not just a profit motive.

If you and your agency want to leave a mark on the world, this will be attractive to young people. They want to do the same. Your ability to convey the purpose behind your agency in simple clear language will not only be engaging and inspiring to your team members. The purpose (or WHY) is a vital part of your Customer Value Proposition and crucial to winning new business.

A word of warning; your purpose must be AUTHENTIC. Millennials and their younger counterparts hate hypocrisy. The mission must be genuine AND be at the heart of the agency.

Millennials don’t want to be managed, they want to follow inspirational leaders and be guided, coached and mentored by them. 

TRANSPARENCY

Today’s young people have grown up with more easy access to information than ever before. I remember having to wait in the University library for the right textbook to be returned! Millennials have no concept of this.

Younger workers need information like oxygen. It’s like fuel to them. They also demand the ability to see behind the scenes of what they are interested in. They use social media to view their favourite celebrities at home etc. This, combined with a more ethical and stronger stance on business with a purpose, makes transparency a vital ingredient to Millennial culture.

You can’t share every piece of information with your team but share as much as you can. When they understand what you are trying to achieve they will be far more likely to want to help you achieve it.

Millennials want progression. They want to see what is possible for them to achieve and understand the steps they have to take to achieve it. 

I’ve learned you can’t over-communicate with Millennials. The more information you give them, the more they will want. It can be quite challenging at times, but its a mindset of a generation and its not going to change.

Despite being digital natives, I find younger people respond well to face to face communication from their leaders. I think this in-person communication is something that some agency owners have started to overlook and feel is not relevant in the age of Slack etc. They are wrong.

Admitting mistakes and showing a degree of vulnerability is not something that features in many management textbooks. Whilst nobody wants mistakes, encouraging people to be open about them provides learning opportunities. Crucially, if you as an agency leader are prepared to open up about the fact you don’t always get things right, then this creates the sort of human connection Millennials crave. Despite being surrounded by technology (or maybe even because of it), they value human relationships with their colleagues more than ever before.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Millennials and Gen Z people need to be heard. They need to feel like they have influence and are using it. Once again, technology plays a part here. The ability to publish to the world online is something young people are predisposed to do.

Gen Y & Z are generations that have been lavished with praise, recognition and awards for achievement since childhood. From the classroom to video games, badges of achievement have been bestowed upon them.

 

With this background, it’s not surprising that younger colleagues expect to have a voice, as well as regular feedback and praise. Like information, you simply cannot give enough praise, acknowledgement and feedback when managing Millenials and Gen Z people. As if this wasn’t enough, it’s very important that it’s delivered in a timely fashion. The more that you communicate in person the better. Don’t just tell them they did a good job, tell them why it was such a good job and why it made a difference or impressed you! Make sure they’re seen as the heroes and they get the credit where it’s due.

A few words of caution. Studies show that Millennials as a generation prefer more public recognition than their older colleagues. However, the old adage of praise in public, reprimand in private still holds true.

It should also be remembered that people are individuals. If you have a young Millennial in the agency who is quite introverted, your idea to present them with a bottle of Champagne in a company meeting using a song you’ve written just for them, might not go down as well as you expect!

AUTONOMY

Millennials crave autonomy. They’re a generation that is full of self-belief. They want responsibility early and the flexibility to achieve goals how they want to achieve them. This means you must give them latitude and not try and turn them into clones of yourself or other members of the team.

What worked well in the past might still work well today, but Gen Y and Gen Z are focused on putting their mark on something (not slavishly following rules).

As a business owner though, of course, it’s only right that you want some control. You need to give them autonomy but within a framework. In order to achieve this its best to set boundaries or guidelines rather than rules. I describe it as ten pin bowling with those child-friendly rails up. Let people bowl how they want, but show them where the outlying barriers are (and have some checks in place to stop them crashing into them if you can).

Younger staff members are more entrepreneurial than their predecessors. Many of them have grown up in the Gig economy. They don’t understand the concept of working for a company all your life. They want to grow and develop. They want to follow and explore their passions. As an agency owner, at the very least you should encourage this spirit. Allow people to research and explore their other interests. Support people with their external learning and/or side hustles. Give them either time or resources – or both – if you can.

Last but not least, the world of work is changing. 9 to 5 office hours are not the norm they once were. Millennials and Gen Z don’t live to work, they work to live. They’re more comfortable with working from home and at hours to suit them.

You must think productivity rather than presence in the office here. The more flexibility you can embrace around hours and working patterns the more attractive an employer you will become. That said, this is one of the most challenging aspects of managing Millennials and Gen Z employees. Agency businesses are fluid and priorities are forever changing. For most agencies, this needs to be a transition and not a blind leap of faith.  

Don’t manage, motivate.

Clearly there are a lot of things to consider when managing Millennials and Gen Z people. It’s vital that you focus on creating a culture they can thrive in rather than trying to manage them to closely.

When it comes to Gen Y and Gen Z, culture may eat strategy for breakfast, but it eats traditional managers and outdated thinking for lunch.

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.

How to become a niche agency – PART 6

Finish with WHY

This is the penultimate post in my series on how to find your agency niche. The last 3 articles have focussed on refining your target audience (WHO), communicating the value you deliver (WHAT) and using your approach to differentiate your offer (HOW). In this piece, I’m going to look at the core purpose or mission (your WHY).

These posts are as much about crafting an effective Value Proposition as they are about becoming a niche agency. Finding your agency niche is not a particularly effective growth strategy on its own. You must find your agency niche and communicate it effectively. That’s where the Value Proposition comes in.

People are often surprised at my approach to creating a Value Proposition. The likes of author Simon Sinek have popularised the opinion that you should start – not finish – with WHY. I understand this view of course. If you, as an agency owner, already have a clear purpose that clients will find engaging and motivating then, by all means, start your Value Proposition or pitch with your WHY. 

Unfortunately, I find that many agency owners don’t have such clarity of their purpose. Rather than starting with WHY, I find that crafting a Value Proposition in the order that I’ve described can be a more productive, and less frustrating, exercise. It also usually leads to a deeper understanding of what makes the agency and its owners tick. 

Why are we here?

If you’re an entrepreneur, then chances are you started in business for a number of reasons. That said, the primary objective for most is financial reward. To make a profit.

Whilst this is usually the core reason, people have different levels of ambition. Some want to make millions, others just want to make enough to support themselves and their families. In addition to income, many entrepreneurs want to build a business that has value. A value that at some point they can realise through a sale or exit.

There are other reasons for starting and running a business beyond the financial aspects of course. Doing something you love, being in control of your own destiny, greater flexibility or even simple necessity can all come into play. 

Many entrepreneurs start with an idea for a business or product that they believe is either new, revolutionary or has untapped potential. They have the drive to create something or to exploit specific market potential.

Whilst agency founders are no different from other business owners, I find the most common reason for agency founders to start an agency is control. To utilise and build on their skills in order to serve clients and create/deliver work that they can call their own. To be masters of their own destiny rather than work for an established agency.  To do what they love in the way that they want to do it.

Starting out

Establishing any business is challenging, but starting out in the marketing agency sector is easier than many industries. There are few barriers to entry to the agency market. Little capital investment is required. No formal qualifications are necessary. Agencies can be created quickly. In some cases, they can even evolve from a founder establishing themselves first as a freelancer(s). 

This ease of entry is a great thing, but it does leave me to reflect that many agency owners are not driven by a big vision. Their business goals are personal to them and not usually invested in creating a new product or re-shaping an industry. They have a desire to create great work and results for their clients of course. However, as these clients are usually ill-defined (see WHO), painting a vision for what long-term impact the agency wishes to achieve can be hard to do. Capturing such a vision in a way that delivers impact and meaning to prospects is usually even more challenging.

Whatever the reason(s), it’s vital for growth that an agency has a clear mission and compelling WHY. Whether it’s expressed at the start, middle or end, your WHY is the beating heart of an effective Value Proposition.

Why is this important?

Having a purpose or WHY you do what you do is incredibly important in business today Not that its a modern concept.  The 19th Century German philosopher Frederick Nietzsche said, ‘He who has a why can endure any how.’

Why you do what you do, and why it should matter to your clients, team and the wider world is more important than ever. It’s a vital part of attracting clients, recruiting and retaining staff. It’s integral to marketing, managing and developing a niche agency.

Your WHY is actually important to 3 groups of people:

1. Clients – I’ve spent a lot of time in this series emphasising that the focus of the Value Proposition is communicating the benefits of your niche agency offer to clients. Having a strong mission (WHY) gives clients a reason to believe. It creates an opportunity for clients to understand and start to develop an emotional connection with your business. Crucially it helps your agency stand out from the competition.

2. Colleagues – The main focus of a Value Proposition is to engage clients. There are, however, a group of very important people that you also need to keep engaged. Your team. Helping your people stay on track, motivated and loyal to your agency is increasingly difficult as competition for talent is intense. A strong WHY clearly communicated is vital in keeping your team engaged with your business. I find this is particularly powerful in a niche agency where some members of the team may not understand the importance of working in a niche. Your WHY is particularly important for employees who are Millenials. It is generally accepted that younger people need to feel connected to something beyond the company bottom line to make their best contributions. Millennials crave purposeful work i.e. they will work hard to make the agency profitable if they understand and engage with the purpose behind its work. This purpose must extend beyond the pursuit of profit.

3. You (the agency owner/leader) – Last but not least, your WHY must motivate you as an agency owner. As I noted earlier, starting an agency is relatively easy, but I know from personal experience that running an agency is tough. Having a clear purpose to guide you and influence your decision-making is as useful for you as the agency principal, as it is to your team.

How to find your WHY

The most effective WHY’s are born not created or manufactured.  In other words, the agency purpose is ideally borne out of the personal beliefs and vision of the agency owner(s).

Finding your WHY, therefore, demands quite a lot of reflection and maybe even some soul-searching. It should be influenced by the beliefs, values and aspirations of the agency owner(s).

How this plays out is, of course, itself influenced by the number of founders involved and the size and maturity of the agency. If its a relatively small or young agency with few shareholders then the WHY should naturally be heavily guided by the vision of the owner. If the agency is more mature and larger with an established culture, whilst the founder’s input remains a priority, the WHY might be shaped more by a wider group and take into account established culture and wider context.  

When I’m helping a niche agency client define their WHY, I encourage them to consider 4 areas… 

1. What do you/your agency enjoy doing? 

What energises the agency?

What drains it?

Does what excites your people, also excite your clients (and vice-versa)?

Why do people join your business?

Why do people stay?

Do you excel at innovation or change or do you enjoy predictability, order and delivering proven processes?

 

2. What are your core strengths?

What things do you always do? 

What do you rarely or never do?

Are you a creator/innovator or a builder/maintainer?  Does your agency like to make a difference in a short space of time or have a bigger impact over a longer period of time?

Do you make your money from your core strengths? If not, why not?

3. When are you at your best?

Where do you add your greatest value? N.B. You add the greatest value where you solve the greatest client problems.

What type of client personalities get you more enthused about what you’re doing than others? 

 

What is driving you to be the best (insert type of agency here) you can be?

Are you best at strategy and/or new ideas or do you excel at delivery, data or analytics?

4. How will you measure your impact?

What are you fighting for?

What does success look like for your agency? How will you know when you’ve achieved it?

What future are you trying to create (for your agency, clients and the wider world)?

How do you want to be remembered as an agency? What will be your legacy?

How does your agency contribute to the wider world?

What are you passionate about or frustrated by?

Bring it all together

Before integrating it into your Value Proposition, you should create a purpose statement to describe your WHY…

  • Most purpose statements start with “To”.
  • Choose words that suggest positive action.
  • Keep it short. Don’t overcomplicate it.

Does this statement resonate with you and your team? Does it make sense to existing clients? Will it engage new prospects and new people?

 

Summary

The pursuit of growth and a profitable agency is what keeps many of us coming in to work each day. But what is your big vision (beyond making money)? 

Your success is really measured by the impact you have on the world around you. This is WHY you exist and is certainly why many clients and most of your people want to work with you.

This is the final building block of a powerful Value Proposition and the key to exploiting an agency niche.

 

 

 

How to become a niche agency – PART 5

The importance of HOW

In my previous articles on becoming a niche agency, I firstly looked at refining WHO your target audience is. I then urged you to define WHAT value you deliver for them N.B. not what services you perform, the VALUE your audience actually receives from your services. Benefits not features.

In this piece, I’m going to look at the next stage in the agency Value Proposition. How you can differentiate your agency with HOW you work or interact with clients.

HOW you work is a key aspect of the Value Proposition for a niche agency.  That said, it’s slightly lower down the hierarchy of communication for me. In my experience, busy clients who are under pressure, rarely care too much about how you deliver for them as an agency. As long as you deliver for them.

I actually find it strange that many agencies promote HOW they do things as a priority, Talking about this seemingly ahead of lots of other more important aspects of their business. Moreover, they often choose to take this route rather than consider positioning themselves as a niche agency with a specific and definable target audience.

We’re different (but the same)

In an industry built to create and differentiate brands, marketing agencies are surprisingly poor at differentiating and marketing themselves. Rather than help us to stand out, the terms we use to describe our agencies are often strikingly similar. Many have become clichés.

Take a look at most independent agency websites and you’ll encounter familiar terms and recurring soundbites. Most of the descriptors are commonly preceded by we and/or we’re. Here’s some familiar examples:

We’re full-service – We do everything for you (even though they usually don’t, or quite possibly can’t). I find it amazing how this term can still be seen by some as a differentiator or motivating to prospective clients. Maybe the one-stop-shop agency was a compelling idea in the 1980’s, but we now have so much better access to information. We also have tools to help us communicate and manage the process better. In the 2020s I don’t believe clients are interested in an agency whose core proposition is everything under one roof.

We’re specialists/experts – This is usually followed by a number of claimed specialisms in usually inter-related but nevertheless independent disciplines. If you want to be a niche agency you must find a niche market and supply it with a specific service.

We’re Award-Winning – I value awards from a team motivation perspective. I also appreciate their ability to substantiate and add a degree of trust in the agency’s capabilities. Award ceremonies are so numerous though. Which agency doesn’t have a shelf full of plastic gongs to show off?

We’re a friendly bunch – I find that every agency claiming this is right. Agencies are filled with great people who by their very nature are friendly and easy to work with. Sadly it’s not a credible differentiating factor. Neither is the near-ubiquitous agency dog designed to convey furry friendliness. Rather than make an agency standout, a picture of the agency dog on the website has become almost “me too” and even has its own social media #agencydogs hashtag to emphasis its mass appeal.  My own dog is welcome in my office any day, just not on my website.

We’re honest/transparent – Trust in advertising and marketing agencies has declined in recent years. Media agencies, in particular, have been dogged (no pun intended) with transparency issues.  Unfortunately, trust has to be earned. Simply claiming honesty just seems to imply you have something to hide.

We’re results-focussed – Now we’re getting a little warmer here. The marketing industry on both client-side and within the agency sector are being held to account like never before. Results and metrics are paramount. Can you deliver the results though? Actions speak louder than words. Clients are far more interested in real case studies that demonstrate an ability to deliver, rather than overtures about what your agency focus is. Indeed, if you’re an agency that isn’t focussed on results you’ve got big problems.

We’re passionate – Telling somebody you’re passionate just doesn’t cut it (for them or you). Like trust, you have to really experience passion. Even if you can get a degree of energy and commitment across in your communications its at best only a hygiene factor for somebody considering working with you.

We’re different – Saying you’re different but then using the same language and images as loads of other agencies really doesn’t work either. If you’re genuinely different, don’t tell me; show me. Tell me HOW!

A Genuine Difference

Please don’t be offended by my cynicism in the list above.  We’ve all used at least some of these terms to describe our agencies (myself included).

I’m being particularly challenging to make a point of course. When describing HOW your niche agency works in your Value Proposition, the objective is to differentiate and stand out (not to fit in and be like those other agencies). Using the above terms is paradoxical.

That said, you don’t have to aim to be completely unique. The quest for uniqueness can be a frustrating process that often ends in a Value Proposition that is too contrived and hard to understand. 

What we’re looking for here is differences in the way you work or how you approach things in a slightly different way. In a sea of sameness, a slightly different take or, indeed, an explanation of HOW you produce your value for your niche audience can make all the difference.

The key though is to not only identify and communicate HOW you’re different. You must communicate HOW these differences benefit the client. Why does working with you – in your way – enhance the clients’ chances of getting better results? Why is your way better than the other agency the client might be considering working with?

How to find and utilise your HOW

Making HOW you operate an integral part of your Value Proposition is a great way to differentiate your agency. It’s also usually far easier to do if you are a niche agency.

By nature, HOW you operate can be personalised more if you have a defined niche audience. The benefits of your HOW can be more easily communicated and will be instantly more relevant to a niche group.

You may already be working in a way that is different from other agencies. Alternatively, you may have some ideas on how you can evolve how you work and use it to not only deliver your services but also engage clients prospects and help you stand out.

It’s important that you’re able to explain your HOW and the benefit to your clients. Simply saying that you’re great at client service and you really place a lot of emphasis on it, for example, is not enough. It’s not specific enough to how you work, it’s not differentiating, and it’s an easy claim to make but practically impossible to substantiate.

Here are some areas to explore to help you create a story around your HOW:

1. Brand your methodology – Have you got a specific process you go through when working on a project? Do you approach client problems in a particular way or with a unique perspective? Could this be explained in detail and be branded as a bespoke methodology? Remember to include what benefits the client(s) derive from working in your way. Always think you not we.

2. Embrace a methodology – You can work in a different way to other agencies but using methodology created elsewhere. There is a lot of talk within agencies about Agile at the moment. This is an example of how some agencies have adopted the way of working from software development and utilised it in a different environment. Agile and Scrum have become common buzzwords, but the core principles of deploying self-managed teams was something my own agency was doing 15 years ago. Have you seen a way of working elsewhere that could be adapted to suit your agency? Could it become a point of difference for you?

3. Values & Principles – Are your company values a graphic on the office wall or do your values REALLY dictate how you operate as a business?  Can you honestly say to clients that you have a specific value system and there must be a fit with this if you are to work together? People want to work with people whose values align to their own so this can be a powerful message and a key differentiator if there is a natural fit.

4. Try before you buy – Can your agency claim a particular commercial approach to doing business with a client?  For example, could your digital marketing agency conduct a localised trial of your proposed activity first to identify if the results that are required can be achieved?  If not, then maybe you could claim to not take on the work.

5. Expert / Personality – Does your business have a leader or senior figure in the business that is a recognised expert in your client niche?  Can you use this person to create a process around HOW you operate?  Can you elevate their profile to make them a focal point in HOW you work?

6. Onboarding – The start of any client relationship is crucial. How you onboard clients could be a point of differentiation.  How do you engage with them differently in those vital early stages of working together? How does this benefit you and what is the benefit to them?

7. Engagement – Onboarding a client is one thing, but what about your ongoing relationship?  Do you work with clients in a different way than other agencies? Do you have fixed-term contracts or set review periods? Do you embed a member(s) of the team in the client business for the duration of the project/contract?

8. Walled Gardens – Do you have research, knowledge, information or insight that clients would value but don’t have? Can you explain how you can give them access to this information only when they become a client? Can you offer clients training for their teams on specific aspects of your work together? Once again, this type of approach is far easier to establish if you’re a niche agency. You can capture your learnings and expertise from working with other clients and give new clients the benefit of it. This is much harder to achieve if you are trying to appeal to clients across a broad spectrum.

9. Pricing – Do you or can you price differently from other agencies. The industry is desperately trying to lose the shackles of the billable hour. Do you price your work on value delivered not on the time you spend? Do you work on some sort of revenue/profit share basis? Can you claim to have skin in the game and invest some of your own money in the project you are working on with a client?

10. Staffing – Do you staff your agency in a different way to your competitors? There must be a benefit to you of doing this, but is there also a tangible benefit to your clients? Can you express this benefit in a way that is interesting and motivating to prospective clients to want to learn more.

Summary

HOW you do what you do is an important component of the Value Proposition for any niche agency.

The way your agency works can be as distinctive as the work it produces and the results it delivers.

For many agencies HOW can be the real point of differentiation.

In my next article in this series, I’m going to look at the final building block of any Value Proposition. Some would argue it’s the most important, I certainly think its the one that can connect with your clients in the most emotional way; WHY you do what you do and what you believe in.

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