If I knew then what I know now... I'd play by some rules

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I worked for a couple of different agencies right after I got out of college. They were both good regional agencies that had solid reputations and a decent list of clients, but there were some things that bothered me about the way each of the leadership teams ran their agencies.

Jim Nash
Jim Nash Credit: Marcus Thomas

First, there were too many policies and too many rules. Second I didn't like the way people were treated. There was a general arrogance among the owners, executives and senior managers, as well as a sense of entitlement.

I thought I could do better. I thought that if you treated people like responsible adults, they would act like responsible adults. I also thought that if you flattened out the management structure, you could stay closer to the clients, closer to the employees and the work. The assumption was that you'd end up with better agency/client relationships and more human management/employee communications, resulting in better work and a better agency.

Similarly, I thought that if we distributed ownership to the best managers, you would create a strong, accountable agency culture.

I know that my assumptions proved to be true, but it wasn't as easy to do as I thought. First off, you need to have the right partners in the agency working with you to make a good agency better, and, hopefully, someday great. Getting the right partners working together took a while. Once we thought we had the right team in place, we naively thought we would start doing great work. But then we learned that not all people who work at an agency want a casual, accountable, yet loose culture in which to work. Some people actually like to be told what to do and when to do it. Who knew?

The other difficulty is getting the right people in place to complement and work with the partners to drive the agency forward. Easy, right? Nope, you must set a vision and get everybody working toward it in a manner where individual freedoms are realized while accomplishing collective goals. This takes a lot of constant and transparent communications with your workers, and especially your clients. Clients want the best work from the best agency. But you need to tell them who you are. You need to tell them where to find such an agency and how best to engage that agency, which takes a lot of work and communications. Prospective companies need to know all about this agency that wants to work hard to help them achieve their business goals.

What I know, after nearly 30 years, is that to build a good agency in which employees and clients are happy and getting what they need takes a lot of hard work. Continual hard work. A dedication to always getting better, always innovating, and always creating a better culture to nurture the best from great employees and clients.

It takes the demanding work of a gardener constantly tending to all the variables to grow wonderful things. It also requires a responsive nimbleness to deal with factors out of your control -- always preparing for the worst, while hoping and planning for growth. And, it takes patience. Patience for the things you do in the short term to have a long-term effect to take hold and grow. I know now it works. We have averaged 11% growth per year for the last 25 years. Our work has won just about every major industry award and we've been voted by our employees as a top 100 best company to work for each of the past eight years that the survey has been in place.

Jim Nash is managing partner at Marcus Thomas in Cleveland, Ohio. Want to hear more about who to manage a small agency and see their great work? Sign up for our Small Agency Conference & Awards on July 17-18 here.

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