Hill Holliday President on lessons learned leading a legacy agency
Last year at this time I was in Cannes, sweating through a panel called “Building the Marketing Org of the Future.” (It was hot and I was dehydrated.) We talked about the change needed to elevate the agency-brand model during a time of unprecedented disruption.
I’m staying at home this year, as we prepare to celebrate our 51st year in business. That’s a long time. But whether your agency is 5 years old or 50, one thing is universal: the pace of change in our business is unrelenting. It’s what keeps agency leaders up at night. If it doesn’t, you’re in the wrong business.
I’ve experienced these changes, big and small, both in our industry and firsthand in my office. We’ve grudgingly said goodbye to a few longtime clients. And we’ve parted ways with some great colleagues. It’s no secret—neither is fun to do. But for those sounding the death knell of creative at the expense of data, consultancies or in-house teams, I give you the old adage: lead, follow or get out of the business.
Our founder once said there’s no business with higher highs or lower lows than advertising. I’ve found that to be truer than I imagined but I’ve also learned that these highs and lows are where you learn the most. So here are a few lessons I’ve taken to heart over the years:
Remember your roots
Talented people are the currency of our business, so there’s nothing more important than an agency’s culture. What’s culture? You can have all the happy hours, healthy snacks and dog-friendly office perks in the world, but at the heart of any agency is often the thing that made it great in the first place. What won the first pitch? What got you to that awards stage? How did you drive that client’s business? When times are tough, you have to dig deep, find your roots and rediscover your purpose to keep moving forward. Our agency was built by four entrepreneurs, a payphone and the belief that they could do anything with the right people and the right clients. Through the years we’ve grown bigger, but we’ve managed to hang on to that scrappiness. And at a time of constant disruption, we’ve found that scrappiness has never been more relevant. So, find the thing that’s at the heart of your agency—and celebrate it.
Fight the good fight
Thanks to an abundance of research and data, and ever-diminishing attention spans, there are an increasing number of reasons to say no to a big, creative idea. Keep fighting for the great ideas. They’re more important now than ever. Use all the resources at your disposal—talent, media, budget shifts, and yes, data—to lead your client to the right marketing decision. Rather than let data dictate the brief and limit the possibilities, use it to inform your KPIs, inspire your customer journey and inspire your creative teams. Mobilize your agency partners in the same way—not as adversaries but as collaborators in the joint construction of the road to “yes.” I’ve learned the hard way that you catch more flies with honey than vinegar.
Run, don’t walk, toward change
For the unprepared, the storm of change can feel like an unexpected hurricane. Like every big agency, we’ve parted ways with some longtime clients (and met exciting new ones). Today, we’re all competing for smaller slices of the pie and we’ve had to adapt. We’ve seen great agencies folding or merging and longtime independents selling. Your agency might have boardroom-ready creds, but if you don’t yet have the right blend of marketing sciences and creativity leveraging media, art and technology, how are you going to get there? If you’ve got to “Marie Kondo” your teams, Kondo away. Don’t underestimate the power of a good chief human resources officer or chief operating officer who can implement simpler organizational design, nimbler processes or more fluid structures. Shedding legacy layers that no longer need to exist can seem tough—but these decisions can and will make your agency better.
Focus on the right things, not the easy things
It’s easy for agencies to get distracted internally. We all do it—letting the urgent override the important. Aside from focusing on your clients, you must heed the subtle and not-so-subtle shifts in our own business. Here’s one example: while agency revenues grew a modest 1.7% last year, healthcare revenue for agencies grew 4.8%. We noticed that trend, too, and launched a branded healthcare agency, Hill Holliday Health, to make our growing healthcare practice official. Doing so led to four RFPs and three wins in the first quarter of 2019. Why didn’t we do it sooner? Distraction. Suffice it to say, lesson learned.
The truth hurts but the untruth hurts more
Transparency is a hot topic these days for a reason. In media buys, in diversity and inclusion discussions, in agency compensation models and in client needs—you can’t get away with fudging it. You can't fudge the numbers or the tough conversations or the results. And, you know what? The truth works. When I became president, I met with department heads to discuss where we should invest and divest to stay competitive. We needed to value action and results over planning and consensus, and we needed shared goals. We needed more rigor in measuring progress and more accountability. And we needed to rethink our talent strategy and redesign our office layout to be more vibrant, nimble, and efficient. We needed internal communication to be more consistent and collaborative. I needed to listen more and we all needed to share more—and share more often—so that we could be honest with each other about what’s working and what’s not.
What’s stopping your agency from progressing or adapting? Not all the changes you make will be popular but you must come together and muscle through them honestly.
Agency leaders have a lot to keep them up at night and the pace of change is always at the front of the line. But that’s what gets me out of bed in the morning. I love this business. None of us are perfect, but we’re all smarter than we were last year, and the year before that.