The Innovative Agency
The Innovative Agency

Episode 167 · 2 months ago

167. Growth and Culture in Agencies, with Doug Austin

ABOUT THIS EPISODE

How does culture impact the growth of your agency?

In this episode of the Innovative Agency podcast, we are joined by the founder of Austin Amplifies, Doug Austin. Doug is a growth consultant who helps agencies of all types and sizes grow and thrive. During our conversation, he shares his insights on the intersection of culture and growth within agencies.

What you will learn in this episode:

  • How do growth and culture complement each other within agencies
  • What are the two most important factors in creating a safe work environment
  • How a growth culture helps to avoid losing your “A-Player” employees
  • How agency owners can maintain culture and talent development in a hybrid or virtual working world
  • Why agencies should conduct a third-party audit to help foster growth and culture 

Bio

Doug Austin is the founder of Austin Amplifies - a business growth consultancy that helps agencies of all types and sizes grow and thrive. Doug spent a career in the advertising agency world working for some of the country’s best independent shops from NYC to Dallas to Missouri. Today, Doug spends his time coaching agency owners and their teams on how to create a culture of growth and position themselves to win.

Resources:

The Innovative Agency is a podcast designed to help marketing agency leaders answer the question what's next in their industry. If you're looking for actionable ideas about how to operate and grow innovative agencies, you've come to the right place. Let's get into the show. Welcome back everybody. It's sharing tork with the innovative agency and I happen to know for a fact talking with a lot of you, that growth is always on the mind of every agency owner. You're always thinking, sometimes to our detriment, I think, as service business owners. We think about growth, maybe at the expense of nurturing Um, you know, the farm we've already got inside our agency or our businesses. But Nevertheless, growth is always on the mind of every agency owner. And later I talked to and so is culture, and I'm learning through the past eighteen months, where talent is key, that culture means different things to each of you. Um it it. Sometimes it is about how you interact with your clients, sometimes it's about how you build teams within your agency. Um, usually it's a little bit of both. But let's talk a little bit about how the the two intersects, and so Um, Doug Austin, Austin amplifies, thank you so much for your own core appearance on innovative agency to talk about Um growth and culture and agencies. It's good to see you again. Good to see you again. Think. Yeah, no, it's my pleasure. So what intrigued you? I know that your consultancy, in general, Um is very interested in teaming with agencies who want to grow, who definitely have a growth mindset, and that can mean different things. But you're sort of very interested and lasered in on this whole aspect of growth via the culture of the agency. So I guess let's talk a little bit about how the two interplay...

...with each other, because maybe it isn't always so apparent to those of us who are thinking about both how they interconnect. Sure, yeah, no, that's a that's a great way to get into this. I you know, I talk a lot about creating a culture of growth and I have workshops that I put on for agencies and other folks to help explain just that great thing. So I guess I'll just start from from the beginning, which was my own experience in the agencies, the Group of agencies that we um, we owned and ran for for many years and being a career advertising person, I had the opportunity to see a lot of different cultures and how effective they were. And you know, coming up through the ranks, I mean from free intern to owner, there's a lot in between, you know. And so you have a lot of bosses and you have a lot of cultures, you have a lot of things that influence the way you say. Golly, you know, one day, if I get the chance to do it myself, I'm gonna do it differ, you know. And and so we did and uh, so Um, and all of that really culminated in Um. What is the motivating factor at your agency or your shop or your design firm or whatever it may be in the creative services? And what's the impact you're you're having on on the product? Meaning have we created a culture, a vibe where people feel really completely safe so that they can be fully vulnerable and share all their gifts? And, aside from having a safe place, you start to retract on his guests right like you're gonna get a little bit, you're gonna get less. You'RE gonna get less because if I lay out an idea and somebody takes my head off, you know, I learned pretty quick I'm not gonna do that again. However, if we create a space that's built on trust and respect, really, I mean it gets down to that bottom simple thing, and trust and respect. If we trust and respect everybody, then will create a space that's safe enough to fully share our gifts. And...

...that's that's what we're going for. And if we do that, we're in a posture of growth, right, because everybody's giving everything they've got, we're not leaving anything on the field, and so, by definition, we're as good as we possibly can be. And if we as good as we possibly can be, why not grow? And so all that to get to the point of why do agencies say they want to grow? Well, as an independent agency person who during this career twice became owned by someone else that was no longer independent, and so they had a different definition of growth. Right. Yeah, and, Um, you know, sort of even at any cost is not a really endearing rally pride, right, and I prefer the growth of growth posture of look, you know, if we did all those things I just said, trust, respect each other, create a very safe environment, we're the best we can all possibly be in our areas. Of Influence and expertise and responsibility, then I want to make sure I hang on to you. And this is where the talent part comes in. If I spent all that time, I meaning the leadership team and everybody in the agency, if we've all spent that much time and effort to really create sort of that perfect agency culture, then why would we let it be vulnerable to Um people leave, and so people leave? Well, I always say this, the best ones, right, will leave because they can. If I'm the best at my game and I'm the top of my game, I have options, you know. And so the a team is vulnerable kind of all the time, right, and the A team changes. And so what are we gonna do to keep the A team engaged? Well, which is where, again back to when I get to do it my way, we're going to do it different. I built these things with my wife too, which was awesome. So she ran one of the agencies and I helped make the other ones and we said we are never going to lose the great people because there's...

...nowhere for them to go and grow. And that is the culture of growth that I try to have help people see us that growth. If you're good at the growth, the money will come, but if you're if you put the effort behind the growth, the people will stay, because now I've created opportunity for people to spread their wings, tried different things. oftentimes we feel like in the agency world, why, you know, I can't go anywhere. My my boss has been there for a long time and she's not going anywhere. So that's I mean, if I want to grow, I have to leave right. I didn't. I didn't want that to happen. Need nobody wanted that to happen. So we said we're going to create a culture of growth to the degree that everybody can say at any time, Hey, you know what, I'm ready for a new opportunity and um or I'm tired of that type of business. I'd like to work on that kind of business. Or, you know, I thought I was a great writer, but it turns out, and I really love production, I would rather be project management whatever. You know. Great. So if I create, if we create an environment that's big enough to create opportunity, we get to hang on to the good people. So my my whole feeling around creating a culture of growth is not as much about, you know, the money that comes. It will come. It does. It just does if you do it right. Um. But more importantly, we're creating opportunity for people so they can grow Um, their their their talent development, their personal development, they can try different things. They don't have to leave the family if you will right, if you do it well. So so that's really the sort of the baseline difference in how I see growth. Yeah, I love I love the expansion of the concept of growth and it is just such a solid reminder of the fact that you can measure growth in so many different ways. As an agency, I think the typical first thing that an agency owner will think about...

...when you're talking about growth they'll think about growth marketing, which means growing top line revenue. Right, but growth can also you can be a ten million agency, a ten know your year agency year one and a ten million dollar agency year two, and your growth has shown itself up in your profitability because maybe your margins went up ten percent and so you took more money home or you had more money to spread around to your team members. Right, even though your revenue might not have have not raised, you can grow in terms of Um, competency of your team members, Um and the results that you show for your clients. There's so many different ways. So I love how you expand this idea of growth as a way of making an agency more healthy or more successful by defining it grounded in what are we doing for the team members who make all of this happen for us? How are we investing in their growth so that they pour in to the agency and therefore invest in its growth? So I love the interconnectiveness of it and I agree with you that this is such a timely discussion when agencies are just holding on for dear life to keep the good talent that they have and to go out there and uh, you know, and find really good talent and then retain it. You know, it's it's getting a tiny bit easier right now, is you and I sit here and talk. I'm hearing at least from our client, you know, our agency client style in the field. But I've got a long way to go before it becomes an employer's game um again, in terms of recruiting. We're not going to be there for a long time. Nor maybe should we be. It's I think it should be Um. I think it's good, I think for employers and employees. Um have some Yin and Yang in terms of the way they get together and stay together. Yeah, I agree. I agree. You know, as a product of the of the late eighties in New York, as an agency person, where you would hear...

...things like, you know, if you screw this up, there's a line out the door people better qualified than you to take your job. You're like AW firms to law firms too. I mean, especially in big law, for sure, there's definitely that Um commoditization of people and their talent that that just doesn't work in today's environment. Um, and nor should it. I mean it's kind of glad that. No, no, I know and and also it's not in alignment, I don't, think, with the kind of results that agencies are trying to achieve for their clients. I agree, it's Um. It's a much, you know, sort of kinder, gentler environment for everybody, which is where that trust and respect starts to show up too. It's like, like, I respect that you're used to a more flexible work schedule and I'm okay with that. At the end of the day, we have a goal, we have something to reach. You know, we're gonna allow you the flexibility to get it done. And there we go. Everybody's happy, everybody's good, as it should. Yeah, or going to be kind and say to you that doesn't work for us in our culture. Let's let's find let's release you to your next awesome opportunity where you will, you know, fit and and find yourself in alignment, Um, with you know, with the agency or the kind of work. Yeah, yeah, it's Um. You know, as it relates to talent acquisition, we have found ourselves and working with the group now and Big Push, big growth push, which is what I'm involved with, for them, and it's a it's a very deliberate market penetration push in specific verticals, and so the the talent acquisition in those seven markets against those specific verticals is very precise. And so it's some sort of General Agency folks we're looking for. There's a very specific set of background and vertical skills we're seeking. And the and and part of initial conversations is Um, we're on an aggressive growth push and Um. And...

...here's why. Here's why. Um, we're approaching x number of folks. Those folks are going to want to spread their wings. Um. Current size of our enterprise today won't allow us to keep them and keep them on a on a personal growth path. And so we're growing the agency and you can be part of that. And in the response that we're getting, frankly, is it's like I've never heard it put that way. Yeah, I'm like, well, you know, thanks, I think. I mean, I'm not sure if it's a unique idea or not, but Um, you know, we sure think it's it's the right reason to do it and the right way to do it. You know. Well, it gets into the importance of just the candor and those conversations. I think that. I think that culture gets wrapped up in a lot of story and this is, you know, I think the industry made its own bed to some degree with this stuff. But you know, early odds, you know, Um, ten years ago, even culture was measured by how much fun we all having. Right, are we all buddies? Do we spend our Friday nights together after working, you know, having beer? Is Our bar in the agent? Say, do we have a pool table? It's expanded to mean so much more than than that and to actually, you know, go more deeply than that, and so I'm wondering how you with the agencies who you counsel and consult with? Does this show up? Do you think clients notice the difference between an agency that has a growth focused culture and one where everybody's just sort of, you know, trying water to get the work out and keep the clients happy? Yeah, you know, that's a great question. Um, these short answers. I hope so right. I think that I'll use a recent example. In discussions with new potential clients and and these are people that we, Um, have engaged with, we've been nurturing, you know, we really like to work with them. It's not necessarily a competitive pitch, but we really want to get to know them better and so we say hey, you know, let's let's get together, let me share what's going on,...

Um. And if they're local, I always encourage them to come to the shop, whatever shop it is that I'm working with, because I really feel like if I can put you inside the walls of the agency, Um, and you know this year and you've been in many ages, there's a vibe when you walk into anybody's agency, there's a vibe and walk into many different agencies. It is the spectrum is big, you know, Um, and you can tell a lot by which you here see feel all of that and it's one of those really it's like vapor right. You can't really put your finger on what it is, but there's some hum about the agency that says God, there's good things happening here. Likewise you can walk in and go. It feels a bit oppressive. It feels like folks are not having a lot of fun, it's messy, whatever it may be. So there's there's pride in this showing off the culture that we've worked so hard to create, and a lot of times the people that make up the culture just think that that's what work is for a lot of reasons. A, they've never been anywhere else, you know. I mean, let's face it, the agency average age of a thirty percent shop is probably twenty six years old, twenty seven years old. It's it's young, you know. So for many of them, maybe even as ment as half of them, this may be their first job, and so not that they take it for granted, I'm not saying that. I just I don't think that they can deconstruct the reality of the world they live in to the point that they could put their finger on what makes it what it is. Other people visiting. I don't think they could either, which is why my answers I hope so. But I think they can tell when they when they send something that isn't right, you know. I think they can, you know. And so all that to say, we, Um, we were always really keen on making sure people did understand that it's a very deliberate effort around creating this culture which, by the...

...way, at your point, you know, dog Fridays and Beers and bars and ping pong tables are all great, Um, and I think that's fun, you know, and if you have the room, I think you should do all those things, you know, and if you don't, that's okay too, because I think what we found out as we've gone through to your point, the hosts and the teens and through to now, is that, you know, really what's creating a fine culture is, Um, the ability to create space where people feel again vulnerable and safe to show their gifts. But also we're life and work integration, and a very deliberately call it life and work integration, not work in life balance, because by definition of balance, something is not in balance, okay, Um. And so there's a tension with balance and an integration is a is a is a connection, and so let's create space where folks can integrate their work and their life seamlessly to the degree that they're they're at peace and there, you know, uh, calm and confident in both places. And if that means you need to work at home, work at home, if that means you need to work at the office, cut of the office. Now you know it's it's not all democracy. Sometimes you have to be in and that's just the way it is. And and and at the end of the day, you either like it or you don't, and you either stay or you go. But doing our best now to take our our initial thoughts of creating a good creating a good culture in two thousand and eight feels very different than creating a good culture in yeah, what are you telling your agency owner of clients who are struggling with either trying to get everybody back to brick and mortarn or settling on a permanent hybrid or even deciding to go permanently virtual? You know, they weren't built for it, but they converted at the beginning of the pandemic and they're not going back. How do they anecdotally, I'm hearing that hybrid is the biggest challenge to culture. I don't know if that's true or if it isn't, but that's when I hear anecdotally. So in those situations where you don't have...

...everybody physically together all the time, which is most agencies these days, at least most small ones, what the agency owners need to be paying attention to to order in order to keep tabs on their team members growth, on the synergies they have amongst themselves and and the health of the culture, so that they're not, you know, missing a beat because they're not physically in front of all these people all the time. Yeah, that's a great question and it has come up recently with some some folks that I've been working with, and so and this is what we all together sort of came to and let's in. You're right, it's usually let's use the small independence. When you have that many people in a building and everybody used to be in the building, you could literally walk around every day as an owner and and see everyone, and so you could you could sort of take a pulse, you could tell what was happening. You overworked. How can I help you? I can see that you're down on your daughter what's going on. You know, you've got a client issue. Let's let's have let's have a coffee, let's figure it out, you know, or whatever. Um, when you're not together, you don't know those things. Because when we show up here on the screen, you know we have our our screen face on. You know, it's like it's you know. So those of you can't see us right now, Doug and I have our screen faces on. That's right, we have a screen faces on. And because that was the way many of the smaller groups we did, you know, we we knew everybody. We could, we could tell, we could assess. It wasn't difficult, meaning we didn't have a very rigid or formal talent development in place. It was more at HAWC Um, we're gonna reviews, we're gonna check in Um, if I can tell your something's up, I'm gonna grab you, we're gonna talk about it. But because I'm not with you every day and I can't see you every day, now I don't know. So now now there's this anxiety that's sort of under the surface from the owner's level or the manager's level, of the supervisor's level, like I don't know how my people are doing right...

...now? You know, I don't. I can't really get a sense of check in. So all that lead to, you know, now, if not um more important than ever to have a more formalized Um talent development process in place, meaning every week or two or three some set of some cadence of check in, some cadence of goal setting, some cadence of Um um sort of monitoring and real KPI, is to reach for something that we can say, how are we doing on this right Um, as opposed to just straight up observation, which, you know, honestly, a lot of small agencies are really, really good at that, um, but but many aren't, just because of the Er fact that I literally know you, I know everybody because I see you every day. But in the absence of that, having something that everyone can look forward to and knowing that, Gosh, you know, we I've got my check in with my supervisor and she's going to be asking me about these very specific things that I told her I was going to be working on, you know, and she hasn't seen me do anything because we're not together. You know. Now now it's on me, you know, Um. So Anyway, I guess short answer to that is, if you don't already have some sort of formalized talent development inside your shop, you should consider that and there's a lot of great resources out there that can provide direction or full programs even on that. Yeah, I feel like not being physically in the same space, you know, every single working day of the week is a great opportunity. It's a great catalyst for being more intentional about the way we build not only, Um, the training and personal development Um, you know, steps that we take our team members through as they're coming through the agency and learning, but also just in terms of how we...

UM evaluate team member performance, and you used to have those more unofficial it's it's like losing a sense and having to sharpen another. Right, since you're not physically in the same space on a regular basis um or or ever um anymore, you've got to build other procedures and systems and KPI s, whatever, you know, whatever floats your bout two that everybody buys into and or at least understands because, like you pointed out, it's not a democracy. They at least have to be informed about them so that everybody understands how they're going to be. What they're gonna be expected to do when, and this is how we check in. I've also found, this is just my personal testimony from having built my firm virtually from the ground up, that over communication doesn't really exist. You cannot over communicate when you are a virtual firm. So say it once, say it five times. It's never too much because you're not having those water cooler conversations, you aren't passing each other in the hall where you can oh, by the way, one another, and so having multiple ways of getting the information over, even if it might seem like, Um, you know, duplicative or like overload, has just been so helpful and and making not only communicating the information everybody needs to have, but in that feeling of connectedness, like, Oh, I've heard from me three times today. Two of them might have been about the same subject, but you know, we're keeping in touch. So, Um, just my own anecdote and personally that now I have the benefit of not having had to pivot, you know, during the pandemic and we were already virtual. But it's been enough time, I think, so that those of you are either hybrid or who are completely virtual because you made that decision. You're not turning back, think about the way you're communicating, in the frequency of your communication and how that can contribute, Um, to your culture and to the growth of...

...your team on some level. And Doug's suggestion, I I dog, I agree with you entirely. Having formalized talent training pipeline. Um, it's just as easy to do virtually and more important to do, I think, if you are virtual. Yeah, yeah, I agree. and You bring up a good point of multiple channels of communication. You know, I think that you know, a lot of people have adopted slack. It's a very popular it's super easy and, Um, what I love about the slack too is, you know, you can say I need a mental break, I'm just a little fried. So I go into my slack channel and I go, Oh, you know, I'm gonna jump in on the chess club which I happen to be in, and I'm gonna see who who's playing today? Are they actually playing? Who beat who last? You know, that kind of thing. or I go to you know, the there's a sort of a happy hour group that's, you know, somebody's going to go out that night in town. They may drop hey, we're gonna be a Barlowis or whatever, you'll come by. And so it's it's just a good way to, you know, US plug in and and so drop out for a minute, refuel has some less serious conversation, because we also used it for all that the quick hits that we need all day long. But it's it's nice to create those fun channels, you know, and encourage people to start up any channel they want and and and invite as many people as they want and it just gives us a Um, it gives us as water cooler moments without the water cooler. Yeah, agreed. Agreed. So what are you seeing around the corner over the next twelve to eighteen months in terms of how agencies look to build culture, Um, to foster growth for the agency are, for the team? Yeah, that's that's a great question. So you know the just going off the heels of the you know, talent development and acquisition conversation, and how does culture playing to that? I think there there is a keen sense of Um awareness around what is my culture? What is it today?...

Because it's it's been in flux ever since somebody flipped that switch eighteen months ago or longer now. And and how did we do during that. I mean these are questions owners. How did we do during that? And if they're still around, then that everybody's feeling really good that they survived, and they should because well, not everybody did and it was a very difficult time. So I'm past that survival. Now I need to get into thrival. You know, Um, it's one thing to survive, it's another to thrive. And and so how are we going to take um where we were, what we learned during that and where we are today and make sure we don't backslide? And so what I see is people having very deliberate questions and they're asking me, and I'm so they're asking you too, what do we do? What should we do? Should we go back full should we be a hybrid? Should we be should I give up my lease and be completely virtual? Um, and I'm the only one I have a kind of definite so too is I would never be fully virtual, because I think you will, over time, become pretty commoditized just because you don't, you're missing one of the key elements, which of empathy around creation, which is, you know, personal activity, and we have to have that. So I'm not a fan of of all virtual I know, I know many agencies that are making it happen because they have been fully virtual since the shutdown, UM, and they're still here and they're still making it, and that's fine, but that's the only one I'm sort of against. So Um. So your question was, what's around the corner? A more deliberate awareness around your culture, and that starts with an honest audit, if I'm you know, Um, and and a real honest audit, by the way, probably can't be conducted by yourself, because you know, we, we, you know, we, we. We've been around for as long as we have because we got thick skin, but we also create the world we want to see. So,...

Um, I would encourage folks to to reach outside to third parties to conduct these audits, Um, and they can be as intense or as casual as as you want. I did one, Um, in February. Um, over a couple of months period. I did one the prior February in the middle of right in the middle of it all, and then right if you came out of it, for two different two different places. Yeah, it was interesting to see, Um, you know, having conversations and interviews and taking the pulse to people when they were in the heat of it in February. You know, everybody's working from remote. Now it's rough to this year where everybody's starting to come back and how to that feel? Um. So, Anyway, Um, my suggestion would be, um, take the pulse of your agency culture and what that looks like is an audit of some sort, and then be ready then. And then the last part of that answer is be ready to make rangers. Yeah, and I think it's I've got to believe that your clients are noticing it. On you. It's showing up either in the way you do a new business pitch or, and it's definitely showing up in the way that your agency is are servicing its accounts. I think if there's a lack of alignment or Um, if your team members don't, they're not going to be churning out the same level of inspiration for your clients if they don't feel supported. Um, it's it's just just seems logical to me. And so, Um, I think the world is becoming a lot more diverse in terms of channels and opportunities that we have to contribute to the personal development of our team members. Um, I don't think these solutions are expensive, as expensive as they used to be UM small agency owners to implement and so and you know, if for if, for no other reason, you know, think about how that ties to your overall growth measured in...

...dollars and cents and revenue for your agency, because I believe there is a Corell area and I've gotta believe you've seen it too, and the agencies that you've audited are worked with, you know, and the the beautiful part of engaging with independence is there. They're able to Um from fiduciary perspective. You know, it is a long game and they can invest in the long game and the long game, if we build the culture, the base right, the money will come, which is not always the case in some of the corporate holding environments where it's you know, there's there's Wall Street pressure, there's board pressure, there's there's a lot of different pressures and so we wind up making different decisions for short term gains and they have long term implications. But people cycle through something. You know the story right. It's the corporate gig. But for those who are really that want to build something that is lasting, sustainable and fulfilling, the culture is the bottom of the bedrock. We have to start there, right, right. Agreed. Yeah, I think that's like job statement right there. And you know, start with your people, Um, and and see how it impacts them and see how it's impacting your client relationships and then see how it's impacting your checking account, Um, as an agency owner, because I have to believe that the trends all move, Um, in the same direction. Yeah, I agree. Awesome. Well, so we're going agencies learn more about Austin amplifies, about your book permission to win, which is all about agency growth, Um, and all the other ways that, Um, you can help them. Yeah, absolutely. So Austin amplifies dot com is is the website where I've, you know, hung sort of you know, my perspective and what we do from the consulting person, you know, services, and then, you know, it was really took advantage of the pandemic myself and wrote this book that you just mentioned, called permission to win, how to grow your advertising agency with confidence.

And really that is my Um, my culmination of experiences over the years building and growing and selling agencies and and you know, kind of the proven stuff that works and also the stuff to look out for. You know Um and it's it's it's as relevant as it's gonna be, as only put out last year. So it's up to it's up to the minute and you can get that on Amazon um or call me and I'll send you on. Awesome. Yeah, there you go, but you're bet. So, yeah, reach out to me through Uh Doug at Austin amplifies dot com or through the website. Yeah, that's how you yeah, and I can certainly testify. I Doug is not only a good partner to agency owners, but he's worn every pair of sneakers that you're all wearing um on his own journey. So He's definitely experienced all the things that you're experiencing running and growing your agencies. So, uh dog, thank you for your encore, for coming back and Joe US again. It's been a while. I'm so excited that we've got a chance to do this again, and thanks for sharing your expertise on agency growth and the role of culture plays in it. It was a really great conversation. No, thank you. It's my pleasure. It's good to see you again. It's good to see you too, and we will see the rest of you on the next episode. Thanks for joining us all. The legal and creative agency protection system is a legal toolkit designed to help busy agency leaders manage legal issues like client contracts, freelancer relationships, intellectual property, social media compliance and more. Get Resources and helpful content about agency legal issues now at agency legal protection dot com. You've been listening to the Innovative Agency hosted by Sharon Torrik. Make sure you never miss an episode by subscribing to the show in your favorite podcast player. Thank you so much for listening. Until next time,.

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