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Ad Age's annual Small Agency Conference, held this week in Austin, Tex., brought forward Texas brands such as Shiner Bock, which recalled its struggle through growing pains, and agencies such as GSD&M, which told the story behind the famous "Don't Mess With Texas" slogan, originally created to discourage Texans from littering.
But the conference was also full of advice, and although the audience skewed toward small agencies, the takeaway could often benefit larger agencies too as well as entrepreneurs in many fields and challenger brands.
Keep talent talking
Retaining young talent is a challenge for agencies, but there is a way to keep them around longer: Communicate with them. A lot.
Rick Webb, co-founder of the Barbarian Group, suggested talking to employees individually once a quarter about whether they're happy, what they want to accomplish and how they can grow. Small shops may not be able to pay as well as the big ones, but quality of life and opportunity to learn more skills goes a long way. Give good vacations, offer various career paths and increase your employees' responsibility so that they feel more valued.
Spice things up
Client-agency relationships aren't much more complicated. Ed Cotton, director of strategy innovation at BSSP, and Jennifer Kate Layton, retail communications manager at Mini USA, gave advice that sounded no less convincing for echoing self-help books on relationships: Set aside time to work on the relationship; talk openly about finances frequently; be honest with one another, but focus on what's right rather than what's wrong; spice things up every once in a while; own your mistakes; appreciate your partners; and break the routine to do something that makes you feel uncomfortable.
Oh, and "don't tolerate assholes."
Watch for red flags
On that subject (bad clients), Ilise Benun, founder of Marketing Mentor, identified the four red flags agencies should look for early on: chaos, no budget, cluelessness and disrespect. When they're chaotic -- assigning last-minute requests with unreasonable deadlines, for example -- "give them structure, have a process and enforce it," she said. "Don't be a doormat."
That might mean telling them what the agency can do with a deadline, without just saying no to an unreasonable request. "It makes people feel relaxed and respect you."
Make your business about excellence over money
Excellence comes from two points, said CrossFit co-founder Greg Glassman: elegance and virtuosity. Elegance for Mr. Glassman was marked by simplicity and efficiency. "Simplicity creates efficiency and eliminates waste," he said. Virtuosity, Mr. Glassman added, was "doing the common uncommonly well. ... These notions have defined excellence and have become the guidepost for everything we do."
Know your "ultimate" customer
Before you embark in any business, take time to ask "your ultimate customer" if they would buy your product or service, rather than asking peers or friends who may not give you objective advice, said Sandy Chilewich, founder and creative director of Chilewich Sultan, a design firm. Businesses of any size all need the same thing: a clear understanding of the target audience and what they want.