When It's Bursting at the Seams, an Agency's True Colors Show

Will Your People Stay Stuck or Use Imagination to Grow in New Directions?

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"I spend all my time putting out fires." "The wheels are coming off the bus." "People are at the breaking point." Those are just a few of the expressions that we use when an agency is bursting at the seams.

Every agency experiences a moment when it feels like the center won't hold. An avalanche of work crushes people. Operating systems start to crumble. We get too busy to think and plan. Work falls between the cracks. Chaos begins to reign. Life feels like a game of survival.

This is a moment of truth. It's when an agency learns whether its people have the resiliency and imagination to outgrow its problems or whether they stay stuck in the present. Succeed and you emerge a stronger, maybe bigger agency. Fail and the agency shrinks back to its natural level of comfort.

It can happen when you've got six people, and it can happen when you've got 100. If it hasn't happened, it will. And if you're a really good agency, it will probably happen more than once.

Having lived through a few of these moments, I've formed some theories and learned a few lessons.

The biggest hurdle for organizations is to imagine a future that looks different than the past. That means we continue to do what we've always done rather than imagine new ways of working. Unfortunately, doing more of the same thing means that nothing changes.

Faced with pressure, the first instinct of almost every agency is to run out and hire more people to fill roles that already exist. Resist the urge. It won't work. You're not going to get more efficient and the work probably won't get any better. I've done it myself. We've worked harder and thrown more bodies at a task when what we really needed was to transform the agency.

Instead, try to imagine new functions within the agency, new roles for people, and new organizational systems. It takes a leap of faith but the effects can be dramatic.

I recall a couple of pivotal moments in our history when a decision in one of these areas changed the course of the agency.

When we had fewer than 20 people, we felt constant pressure to add new creative teams to keep up with the work. No matter how many people we added, the agency continued to feel overwhelmed. Then someone had the bright idea to establish a creative service manager position. Some argued that we shouldn't spend the money on a new position when what we really needed were more writers and art directors. In fact, the creative service manager improved our overall creative systems and restructured the department so that we could manage the work and actually scale when we needed to.

Sometimes you can change the momentum by redefining the roles of existing people. As more of our work shifted to digital, we ended up with a lot of redundancy between traffic, account management and digital production. A group of people worked together and designed a new project management role that integrated all those functions and eliminated duplication of effort.

You've also got to be willing to admit that occasionally you just don't know what the hell you're doing. We spent years struggling to master various aspects of finances. A consulting CFO was able to put systems in place and a whole series of frustrations just disappeared.

The opportune time to reimagine an agency may be when it's spinning out of control. That's when people feel the urgency to make dramatic changes and when they're most willing to experiment. Remember, it doesn't help to create a bigger bus, if the wheels keep coming off.

Phil Johnson is CEO of PJA Advertising & Marketing with offices in Cambridge and San Francisco. Follow Phil on Twitter: @philjohnson.
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