Does Your Agency Have What It Takes to Be a Champion?

Lessons From the Winners in the Summer Olympics

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I cannot get enough of the Olympics. I follow the events during the day (via txt alerts), and watch it tape-delayed at night, even though I already know the outcome. What I admire most are the stories of the sacrifices that each athlete endured to get to London. The strategy. Coaching. Working days/nights/weekends. The commitment to excellence. And when the big day comes to do your thing, you either step up , deliver and win. Or let your competition take it.

Is it any different in the agency business?

In our industry, we are not afraid to work our tails off to succeed. We have to make similar sacrifices to win new business and retain the clients we have. But watching these Games, it is obvious that there are different levels of success. The great ones have made it to the Olympics. The good athletes are home. Likewise, there are many good agencies. But few great ones. What keeps me up at night is the pursuit of greatness: creating brilliant strategies, winning PR ideas, inspiring creative concepts. And outstanding execution of the ideas. If I'm honest with myself, I know my agency is sometimes good. Often very good. And sometimes great. Now if only we could be great all of the time. Like Phelps, Gabby and Bolt.

What does it take for a small agency to go from good to great? For starters, it takes a commitment from the top. The CEO has to be 100% bought in to make agency-wide improvements. Then the management team has to be the very best talent. They, in turn, will recruit talent just like themselves -- or better. And so on. It also takes investment -- in people, infrastructure, award shows and promotion of the award wins, and in new business. It takes looking at your agency culture in the mirror and asking if you have the right ingredients to incubate and inspire champions. It takes having the guts to say "no" to many, many ideas that your teams come up with, so that they dig down deep for the great ones. It takes the sacrifice of nights and weekends. Social plans are sometimes canceled, vacations interrupted. All to delight your clients and do what you do, the best that you know how. The efforts of your sweat will result in winning pitches and presentations -- and ultimately, in growth for your clients and agency.

But the toll that greatness can exact can be significant. The real challenge is : how do you achieve greatness, while still maintaining an alluring culture, and allowing your team to have a civilized work/life balance? It can be done, and agencies like The Richards Group and the Martin Agency are known to have grown great and large, while still retaining the essence of their cultures when they were small shops. Stan Richards wrote a terrific book over 10 years ago about his shop's unique culture, and how he protected and nurtured it as the agency grew: "The Peaceable Kingdom." It's still a relevant read.

If you seek to go from good to great, you will surely feel some pains, but when you come through it, you will be a stronger agency and -- like the Olympic athletes -- have the opportunity to compete to win at the highest levels.

Marc Brownstein is president of The Brownstein Group, Philadelphia.
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