Brands: What to Expect from Your Agency When a Key Staffer Leaves

Actions Agencies Can Take Before and After a Personnel Change

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Can you imagine how different "Mad Men" would be if Jon Hamm were suddenly replaced by another actor to play the lead role of Don Draper? Would you tune in to "House of Cards" if Kevin Spacey wasn't returning next season in the role of Frank Underwood? While lead roles are vital to making a successful TV show, the same questions could be asked about the director, writers or producers. After all, we can agree it takes an army of talent, not just the camera-facing actors, to create a hit show.

Now think about it in the context of the agency you work with. Advertising agencies are notorious for high turnover, so what if the account director on your business leaves for a new opportunity? What if the lead art director takes a sabbatical? Most agencies will quickly communicate to their clients that a transition plan is in place and not to worry -- the work will continue without a hitch. It's the right thing to say, for sure. However, it's no mystery that replacing key team members on the fly is downright difficult. It's not easy to replace experience, and even harder to teach the nuances of your business unless a solid structure is in place. I know this because we, like most agencies, have been down this path before and certainly will face it again in the future.

While communication is a component to navigating through a staff transition, an agency's actions before and after the announcement are the keys to success. Without a strong process, follow-through, and at times willingness to overshare, the work will suffer. Details will be missed and small issues will become massive. We've taken our lumps by not taking a proactive stance during a personnel transition. In hindsight, we saw the signs but didn't react in the appropriate way or put a proper system in place. Our relaxed approach has cost us business, whether we'd like to admit it or not, and that's more than enough reason to implement change. But it's also about valuing relationships so that we aren't negatively affecting our client's business or jeopardizing our brand manager's career.

Before a staffer leaves

Let's first start with what your agency should be doing prior to a staff departure. An agency needs a strong process in which project work and the details surrounding it are routinely shared with department leads and senior leadership. By sharing the information and discussing risks and opportunities, more people become aware of the day-to-day duties and develop a solid understanding of the project tracks, associated dependencies and next steps. The meetings can be tactical and strategic, and can be used as a forum to mentor and train staff in real time. The main benefit of such meetings, however, is to prepare and inform capable replacements if any part of the core team moves on.

We recently experienced the benefit of such a process firsthand. When a key team member unexpectedly relocated, we were able to backfill with minimal effort and execute the deliverables flawlessly. A great agency knows the importance of versatility. That's the kind of agency you want directing your brand. Without this step in the process, it would be a scramble and all sides would feel it. With it, the show can go on.

After a personnel change

The other important factor for an agency is following through after the personnel announcement. The initial communication to a client should be the start of an ongoing dialogue, not a one-time email or chat that assumes everything will be just fine. Developing a transition plan is the easy part. Executing the plan takes discipline and commitment, and this is where some agencies tend to be protective of the details. It's important that your agency provide a well thought-out approach including short- and long-term goals and related dependencies, and that the client is comfortable with it. If not, ask questions, push for answers and request checkins. Of course, we all know that we are not in the business of saving lives, but like a hit TV show, our day-to-day work is reliant on hitting numbers to be deemed successful.

Selecting the right agency to work on your brand is similar to a Hollywood casting call. Brands get to dictate what they are looking for in the vetting process and can quickly say "next" if an agency doesn't fit their criteria. A lot of time and effort is spent evaluating an agency's credentials. Experience is scrutinized, case studies are questioned and talent is sized up in the attempt to find the perfect match. But do brands and agencies spend enough time thinking about how they will work together when their cast or crew changes? It's a compelling question and one that both sides should consider.

A forward-thinking agency has a process in place to share the nuances of the client's business beyond the core team to protect the relationship and the work. It aims to keep agency members informed and have a system to ensure adequate follow-through with the client. This is the kind of agency that can survive a change in the cast mid-season and still be a smash hit.

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