How You Can Redefine Your Agency in a Single Moment

Game-Changers Just Don't Fall Out of the Sky

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Phil Johnson
Phil Johnson
After winning the Volkswagen business, Mike Sheldon, co-CEO of Deutsch, Los Angeles, called it "a game-changer for the agency." Who doesn't want that? At some level, we're all looking for a transformative account, creative recognition, key acquisition or maybe a promotion to president.

Game-changers are big. They are huge account wins, front-page headlines, top-10 agency lists, awards that make you an overnight sensation. Yesterday you were a well-respected regional agency. Today you landed a client that redefines the business. You need to hire a dozen new people, open a Beijing office, and return a call to Stuart Elliott at The New York Times.

I like the sound of the expression. I like the adrenalin that comes with the experience. But game-changers don't just materialize out of thin air. You can't will them to happen. I suspect they happen like a lot of events in life: You pick a destination and then work your butt off. There's risk too. Losing a key client can be a game-changer. Too much success too quickly has crushed plenty of good agencies. An exciting game-changer for one person can be a game-changing nightmare for someone else.

I've got to believe that most small and independent agencies aspire beyond the day-to-day status quo and pursue a goal that has the potential to redefine them. Maybe it's not publicly visible. A new management structure can be a game-changer. An idea can be a game-changer. Whatever it is, it's transformative and when it happens people yell out obscenities and often have a drink.

When I asked people at PJA what would constitute a game-changer, the answers leaned towards global-account wins, consumer-product launches, and high-profile media campaigns. Then again, one person got very specific and wanted more developers who knew PHP, CSS, Flash and Ruby.

I also asked one of my competitors and friends, Tom Simons, founder of Partners & Simons in Boston, to tell me about a game-changer for his agency. (A game-changer for me would be for Tom to retire.)

Tom told me that his agency's response to the demand for accountability had been a game-changer. They became concerned that there was too much soft talk about campaign measurement and that it was not usually connected to any impact that the CFO would notice. "We felt we needed to connect to client business outcomes that were generated by our work. If we could not point to a comparative, superior business outcome, we did not have a case history," Tom told me. That goal has defined the objective and focus for Tom's entire agency and has made a couple of CFOs happy.

I believe the magnitude of a game-changer exists in direct proportion to the scale of your ambitions and your appetite for risk. Unless you're willing to walk into the agency on occasion and make a decision that will change the course of your orbit, you can pretty much expect business to stay about the same as it always has.

If you truly want a game-changing experience for your agency, here are several ideas to consider:

Hire someone who has got a talent or knowledge that does not exist in the agency. If on occasion a single person can change the world, the right one can certainly transform an agency.

Without sounding callous, you have to ask whether there are people so entrenched in tradition that no game-changer could ever take place in their presence.

Identify the people who already drive change and, regardless of their level and seniority, promote them.

Add a new capability, or service, that forces the entire agency to learn something new and pursue a common goal.

More challenging than all of the above, consider changing yourself. Ask what you could do that you've never done before that could create the conditions for a game-changer to strike your agency like lightning.

When all else fails, get lucky. There's always the chance that you'll sit down in first class next to the CEO of a Fortune 100 company who will award you their account over complimentary cocktails. I've had that dream, and all I have to show for it is a pile of business cards.

If you've had a game-changer at your agency, take a minute and share your story.

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You can follow Phil Johnson on Twitter: @philjohnson

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