How to Avoid Agency Growing Pains

Lessons From a No-Longer-Small-Agency CEO

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Sharon Napier
Sharon Napier

When I recently tried to enter our agency, Partners & Napier, in Ad Age's Small Agency Awards, I came to a realization: In just five years, our agency had tripled in size, outgrowing the "small" category. With $15 million in revenue and nearly 130 employees, we are still too small to be a big agency but too big to be a small one. Yet it feels like the right size for us.

In 2004, my partners and I set out on an adventure to buy back our independence from the Wolf Group, and rebrand the agency Partners & Napier. At the time, we had 40 employees, and a few great clients that were ready to make the journey with us.

While there have been a lot of successes along the way, it hasn't always been easy. Once we reached about 70 to 75 staffers, we noticed very real growing pains. We had to learn how to scale our services to a broader range of clients. Our strong regional clients were and continue to be very valuable, but it was critical to land stellar national agency-of-record relationships, too. We also realized how critical it was for us to rapidly expand our capabilities; find the right talent to lead the charge; and -- this is a big one -- realize when we'd made horrible mistakes, learn from them and move on.

A lot of these lessons aren't specific to a small or midsize agency. But they represent some of what we discovered along the way and serve as key tenets as we continue on our quest to realize our vision and expand our impact on even more national clients.

Find your North Star

Use the same strategic rigor to define our own brand and purpose that you do for your clients. This means defining who you are, articulating your vision and knowing what our brand stands for and what your values are. At Partners & Napier, our purpose is "liberating the promise of brands wherever they live." Our values are ones we are fiercely passionate about: courage, ingenuity and family.

We've found that having this kind of purpose-driven vision galvanizes employees, attracts talent and serves as our "North Star" when faced with important decisions such as whom to hire, which capabilities to invest in and which clients to pursue. If we had focused solely on achieving revenue or growth numbers (other than in short-term spurts), our employees wouldn't be energized to do their best thinking and develop the most creative solutions for our clients. They'd be focused on what they could sell.

Overcome your inner control freak

Speaking of making decisions, any leader of a relationship-based business knows one of the hardest things to do is "give up the baby" and share the management of your responsibilities with the next tier of employees. In our case, my partners and I had personal relationships with many of our clients going back 10 or more years. And with the amount of growth we were experiencing, it was essential that we turned over day-to-day relationship management to key staff. We tried to overcommunicate and empower this next tier of leadership with tools to understand what was expected. For instance, every account manager is armed with a book, "Account Management at Partners & Napier," and training. We have conducted acting-based presentation training for all our creative and account management leaders. And the agency partners stay connected to the senior clients as well.

Sharon Napier is president-CEO of Partners & Napier. The Rochester, N.Y.-based agency works with Kodak, Constellation Wines, Philips, Bausch & Lomb and UPS, among others.

With all these pieces in place, we've managed to maintain our relationships with all the clients that made the journey with us to Partners & Napier five years ago. That's not to say we haven't made some mistakes -- most vividly the creative director who refused to wear shoes and refused to fly, for instance. That bizarre experience helped us get better at recognizing whether a potential candidate will be a good cultural fit, embodies the values we stand for and will lead us where we want to go.

Mind the recipe for the 'secret sauce'

The most important asset any agency has is its people. Culture is critical to attracting and retaining the best talent and creating an environment in which they will do their best work for our clients. We've discovered that the most powerful culture drivers are the little things we do. For instance, every employee gets his or her birthday off. All new employees are asked to do a fun skit or video to introduce themselves at our monthly company meeting. I'm still laughing about a video one of our copywriters did where he traipsed all over Rochester in a banana suit.

One of our most powerful (yet least expensive) activities is our annual Thanksgiving breakfast, where each member of the agency tells us what they are grateful for. One of the hardest things about going from a small, intimate shop to one that's a bit bigger is having to evolve the management of some of these cultural drivers. We realized that "inside jokes" don't make 130 people feel included anymore. We also quickly learned that we needed new guidelines for our popular "Beer Friday" when we found one of our employees celebrating "Beer Monday" in his office at 11 a.m. Ultimately, in great culture, everyone needs to find time to play, both in the office and out. Play has to be welcome and celebrated. Everyone in the agency knows their CEO runs every weekend, goes biking with our agency team and won't miss one of her daughters' basketball games. That gives everyone permission to share their passions in the workplace. Whether it's bashing with the Rochester women's roller-derby team or racing cars, we welcome it.

Build the plane while flying it

One thing about growing quickly that really tested our flexibility and agility was creating while we were sprinting. There are no breaks to build something new or figure out a new process or client-service model. You can't build offerings in the hope that someone will buy them later. You have to create and sell ideas and deliver them while building client trust, winning new business and building new capabilities, all as you go.

At our agency, we built shopper marketing into our offerings from day one, because our clients needed it. We expanded it as we went, and now it's about a quarter of what we do. We started building digital capabilities three years ago and, needless to say, digital has morphed significantly and is critical to our offering. Ultimately, driving and managing this kind of growth is like being on a high wire in the rain. But it can be done. We think the key to that balance is threefold: instituting strict financial controls from the start; developing lasting relationships with vendors and clients; and being open and honest with employees whenever there are bumps in the road.

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