Best Practices: Leadership for Small Agency Owners

10 Lessons from 10 Years of Running an Ad Agency

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Running an ad agency is a tough business. The competition is fierce, clients are fickle, margins are slim and the only constant in the midst of major tech-driven disruption is change. It's not for the faint of heart, but that's also what makes it so exciting. As Walrus celebrates 10 years in business, we want to share 10 lessons that we have learned along the way:

1. Don't be seduced by the sexy brand. Our best work has always been the result of partnering with great marketers, first and foremost. A brand may look creatively juicy on paper, but if the people running the show don't share your vision or have the ultimate say, the work will suffer. Vet the marketing department as thoroughly as they are vetting you.

2. Metrics are an idea's best friend. With metrics, we can demonstrably prove that putting dollars behind a more disruptive execution will lead to better sales than putting those same dollars behind a safer one. Become a ninja when it comes to measurement and analytics. It will help you sell the work you want, and help your clients make the case for buying more of it.

3. Sweat the small stuff. When you first open a shop, there's a tendency to search for a unicorn assignment that's going to catapult you to stardom. These dream assignments are few and far between, and while searching for one, you can miss out on creative opportunities that are right under your nose. Approach every project, big or small, as if it's the most important one you've ever worked on.

4. Negotiation is not a bad word. Through the years, we have learned that if we didn't lobby for fair agency fees, no one else would. Procurement's goal is to get the best possible price from vendors, and your goal should be to get the money you need to do the job properly and keep your business alive and healthy. These two worldviews are not mutually exclusive, but you need to be willing to stand up for yourself and work with clients to come up with creative ways of getting what you both want. Your profit margins depend on it.

5. Never stop hustling. New business is the lifeblood of any agency, so you should have someone dedicated to constantly filling the top of the funnel. With the average CMO tenure at 45 months, business does go away. The key is to know when to switch into high hustle mode. It may be counterintuitive, but when things are busy is exactly when your prospecting program should be in full gear.

6. It's half what you know and half who you know. We once crashed and burned badly on a pitch for a nonprofit. But one member of their team must have liked something about us. A year later he landed at Staples and hired us for a big assignment. You never know where the next opportunity might come from, or for that matter, who your next client might be. Keep an open mind and above all else, be nice to everyone you cross paths with on every level of an organization.

7. Work-life balance isn't a fairy tale. If you want your team to give you the best work of their life, enable them to have a life outside of work. Things like flex-time and unlimited vacation give employees the opportunity to focus on other important aspects of life, such as family and outside interests. It also allows your agency to retain valuable senior talent. Three of our departments are run by women working on flex schedules, which sends a message to younger women in the agency that "leaning in" is doable.

8. Don't freak out. The biggest asset an agency owner can have is an even emotional keel. Lose a client, lose a pitch, lose an employee -- it happens to everyone in this business and sometimes all in the same day. Keeping up the appearance of calm when everything is totally hitting the fan is key to maintaining your agency's performance and coming out stronger than ever. Just pretend you are a flight attendant.

9. If you find yourself doing something purely for the money, stop. Think about why you started your agency in the first place, and act accordingly. For us, we very much want to be proud of the work we're doing. There's nothing worse than strolling past all the monitors and seeing things that you wouldn't want anyone to know you're making. We have to constantly remain vigilant.

10. When all else fails: martinis.