Your Own Worst Enemy: Are You Holding Your Agency Back?

How to Make the Leap to the Next Level

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Everyone wants to get to the next level. Interns want to get full-time jobs, assistant creative directors want to be creative directors, agency presidents want to be famous, and everybody wants bigger and better accounts. Having spent most of my career running an agency, I'm often mystified at how hard it is to move from one level to the next, whether that means adding more staff or winning bigger accounts. Sometimes, we've made a major jump without even quite knowing how it happened. And other times, it seems we've dogged it relentlessly to move the agency forward.

When I started PJA Advertising, I couldn't figure out how to grow beyond ten people. Then miraculously, we found ourselves at 15 people, then 22 and next 30. Today, we're 50-plus, spread between offices in Cambridge and San Francisco. The changes that helped us to grow were never easy, and they often happened in unexpected ways. Recently I've gotten a little restless, and as history sometimes repeats itself, I'm trying to figure out how to make the next jump and whether I can find any lessons in our past.

Without any quantitative research, and more gut instinct, I've identified three obstacles that can get in the way.

One. Maybe it's just human nature, but no matter how convincingly we claim we want to reach new heights, inertia keeps most of us in the same place we are today. If you're not doing something different, whether it's changing your point of view, or building a new team, nothing is going to change.

Two. We often expect a big dramatic change from small or incremental investments. I don't know how many times I've been frustrated about our inability to crack a new category, or win a bigger piece of business, only to eventually face the fact that we're not willing to change our game in a way that makes a difference. Getting to the next level requires recognizing when you're stuck and having the self-knowledge necessary to transform who you are and how you operate.

Three. This point applies to senior management only. Don't believe for a minute that other people are holding the agency back. It's always the leader that keeps an agency from jumping to the next level. Maybe it's a lack of imagination, or an unwillingness to take a risk. Maybe the agency is missing a fundamental skill. Success requires the courage to face these realities.

Clear those obstacles out of the way and you stand a chance. In our case, we always had to solve a specific problem to make the jump.

For a long time, we had trouble scaling because we couldn't get out of our own way. We became too dependent on a small number of people to do everything. Once we defined proper roles and divided up responsibilities more equitably, the same group of people could produce dramatically better results.

At least once failure has led to our most productive period. Several years ago we participated in a review with a group of agencies that we admired. We got totally outclassed. In the final pitch, the clients look bored. One of them took a call during our presentation. The post review feedback wasn't any kinder. The experience was humbling, but it forced a series of changes that launched our longest, most successful new-business run. It wouldn't have happened without that painful moment.

Last on my list -- and I promise I'm not going new age on you -- is faith. Most agencies stay pretty much the same because they can't quite believe they could win that national account, compete creatively with the best in the world, or join that elite one percent of agencies that write the rules instead of following them. Who's to say where the magic comes from? At that moment when the whole agency starts believing something big is going to happen, you can usually bet on it.

Of course every leap forward requires a backward look to see how far you've come. Then you're ready to start all over again.

Phil Johnson is CEO of PJA Advertising & Marketing with offices in Cambridge and San Francisco. Follow Phil on Twitter: @philjohnson
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