Change for Sake of Change Is Dangerous for Your Agency

Don't Be Afraid of It, but Make Sure It's for the Right Reasons

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Meredith Vaughan
Meredith Vaughan
The only constant is change, continuing change, inevitable change that is the dominant factor in society today. No sensible decision can be made any longer without taking into account not only the world as it is, but the world as it will be. -- Isaac Asimov

Agencies are like fish -- if we're not constantly in motion, we die. Often, this "motion" is not necessarily the productive forward momentum that small agencies need to survive, but rather, it's motion that is based on the fear that we are missing some essential strategy, positioning or concept. So the logical answer always seems to be that we must institute change so that we don't get left behind in the competitive agency world.

And while small agencies are well-suited to make changes (often more so than the larger agencies) because we can be nimble, it's not always in our best interest to change just for change's sake. Change for change's sake is dangerous to any organization -- but especially in agencies like ours, where constant change can trigger confusion, resistance and unnecessary learning curves -- all of which can lead to poor results for our clients. The fear that causes this "forced" change is counterproductive -- and, ultimately, can lead to a small agency landscape littered with a bunch of dead fish.

Change that comes from an internally identified need, versus an externally realized pressure, should ultimately lead to stronger client relationships, better work and better results for both the client and the agency.

Here's an example of how the work we do for our clients is better after a change we made to our creative development process. About 18 months ago, we realized that we needed to better engage and involve clients in our creative development work. We wanted to make tangible the work that goes into "the work," not only to demonstrate the value of the hours that go into that part of our business, but also to increase the level of buy-in by our direct clients to the final outcome of that smart, strategic thinking. We completely changed the way we approached creative development to accomplish this task -- essentially, turning the model we had previously used on its ear to see what the outcome would be.

This process -- which we lovingly call the "Chaos Cotillion" -- gave us a totally new perspective. And it has also yielded a totally different way of engaging with clients throughout the creative development process. Ultimately, it's made us better partners and resulted in better creative work emerging from the agency -- something that both our clients and our teams are proud of.

If you are thinking about instituting broad -- or even small changes -- at your agency, think first about what's behind the motivation to change. Is this change a necessary one that will help enhance the work that you do in even the smallest ways? Then do it. But keep in mind a few guidelines:

  • Change for the sake of change leads to homogenization: We all look the same if we chase the same changes. Again, if our changes are triggered by external factors vs. internal, we are likely chasing the same thing as the next guy. How will that differentiate your agency or make you stand out? It is sometimes hard to stop fear-based change from occurring, but try to use your core brand attributes as your guide when making changes. That should at least help ensure you don't make changes that will adversely impact your brand equity.

  • Evolution is different than change: To extend the fish analogy, salmon may change their migratory patterns, but that doesn't mean they aren't going to be fish any more. Similarly, it makes sense at times to evolve -- in fact, I would say that it's vital to our survival. But evolution is distinctly different from change for the sake of change. Evolution is a natural extension of your business and growth, and should generally still align closely to your core values/attributes as an agency. As an example -- perhaps you have always been traditional and you are looking to add a digital capability to your tool set. That doesn't mean you have to denounce traditional advertising and you are now a digital shop. You are simply evolving and digital becomes an extension of whatever value it is you already bring to your clients.

  • You are not the only chemist in the lab: We are alchemists. Most agencies (at least the good ones!) are constantly searching for those exact ingredients that will produce the perfect product. But it's important to remember that you are not the only chemist in the lab -- you have employees and clients that might have invaluable input. So when you make changes, you need to make sure they feel organic and natural, and that the change is livable for everyone. The best way to do this is to be inclusive when you are considering change, and not just try to shove it down everyone's throat to see how it tastes.

  • Be committed to your change: Too often, because change can be scary and the unknown even scarier, it is easy to back off of a change. Maybe even a change you know is the right one to make. When we get pushback, or something doesn't go exactly as planned, it's easy to simply scrap it and go back to the way it was or just start over again. That leads to a yo-yo effect for your teams and your clients putting everyone in an unproductive and constant state of flux. Once you decide to move forward with a change -- stick with it. Stay committed. Don't be taken off course because of one voice or one misstep, otherwise you'll never find out if they are the right changes to make.

  • Make sure you have the tools and infrastructure in place to support your changes: If you make a change but haven't figured out yet who will support it, or how, you are dooming yourself to failure. In addition, you have to make sure you have the right metrics determined ahead of time so that you can measure your success to make an informed decision as to whether the change is working or not.

With my agency, we have had changes that have led to great creativity and growth, and we have had changes that are now agency folklore -- "remember the time that... ." But at the end of the day, each was a learning experience that has shaped who we are today. And I can guarantee that a year from now, we will look a little different.

So, what changes have you made recently that have shaped your agency? Were they successes or failures? Did your changes meet the above criteria or do you have a set of your own you like to use? I'd love to hear some stories and thoughts about the state of change at your agency.

Meredith Vaughan is president of Vladimir Jones, Colorado Springs, Colo. .
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