Nine-and-a-half things I learned about running an ad agency

Andy Macaulay shares wisdom gleaned from years in the agency trenches.

By Andy Macaulay

So you want to run an ad agency. I’ve spent many years doing that and have the scars and trophies to prove it. Along the way I’ve learned a few things that might be helpful to you in your crusade.

I’ll skip over the obvious stuff like hiring smart people, creating a culture of trust and being one step ahead of your clients. Let’s get to the more interesting lessons.

It’s harder than it looks
I spent my agency years watching the CEO and thinking, “Hey, I could do that.”  But what you don’t see is what you don’t see. You’re never off-duty, particularly today. It’s really tough not to get consumed by the role. I say this is lesson ½ because, though I learned it, I’m not sure I ever really mastered it. Half marks awarded.

Celebrate your successes, and do it pronto
Advertising is a crazy business where you can certainly influence your success, but lots of things happen to you for reasons beyond your control. So when good stuff happens, celebrate it loudly. Use it to make your team feel good about itself and to inoculate them against the challenges that surely lie just around the corner.

The “D” word is deadly
Advertising is a team sport, and never more than now. Our creative teams have grown to include technology disciplines that didn’t even exist 10 years ago.  There is more interdependence among disciplines than ever before. So anything that gets in the way of that is bad.

It can be physical things, like walls, but I think the worst thing is a mentality of departments. There should not be separate creative, production or media departments. Those build silos where people of the same discipline build a sense of belonging and security with the others who do the same as them, rather than with the interdisciplinary teammates working for a common outcome. That’s bad.

If you believe your own press, you’re in trouble
While the visibility of your agency is something to be carefully nurtured, you’re doing it to create business opportunities, not so you can massage your ego or affirm your self-worth.

Your agency is never as good or as bad as the press will say you are, so don’t use it as the measuring stick of choice.

Figure out why your Agency deserves to exist and leave your ego out of it
There are too many advertising agencies in the world, and most of them do the same things and talk about it using similar words, all the while thinking they’re as unique as a four-leaf clover.

We present ourselves as an industry capable of helping clients define, dramatize and deliver what makes them and their products unique. And the vast majority of agencies can’t do it for themselves. I know it’s hard, but it’s what we do and we have no right to do it for others if we can’t do it for ourselves.

As the leader, it’s not about you, until it is
A long-time client of ours, Ikea, had a great philosophy about organizational structure. They didn’t have a “head office,” they had a service office, which existed to make the stores successful.

As the CEO of an agency you have to adopt the equivalent approach of servant leadership. While your role is critical, you exist to foster the success of everybody else in the agency, and if you do that well, you will be successful. Unfortunately, in an industry that celebrates cults of personality, I’ve seen too many CEOs approach their agency as a personal fiefdom full of indentured servants. If you work in a place like this, leave. Unless of course you’re the CEO, then you need to get over yourself.

While this role is more of a marathon than a sprint, once in a while comes a defining moment where only you can make the decision that shapes the future of your company. Before that happens, figure out how you need to operate to make those choices. Who’s opinion do you need? How will you explore the possible outcomes? Then over-commit to your decision. If there is one thing I regret in my career, it’s the occasions where I procrastinated on choices I knew I had to make.

Share more information than you think you should
People will trust you if you trust them. The people who work at good agencies work hard and give a lot. The least you can do as leader is help them understand where you’re taking the company, why you’re doing it and what’s in it for them. Along the way, it’s easy to share good news. That’s why it’s way more important you don’t try to hide the bad news. That’s not something humans do particularly well, but the leaders I’ve seen who know how to do this earn the respect and loyalty that gets companies through hard times.

The truth is not grey, it is black & white and made of glass
As spin masters, we in the advertising industry have the ability to play fast and loose with the truth. It’s an occupational hazard.

I once explained it this way to our young son: Every time you don’t tell the truth, whether it’s to yourself or to others, you crack the glass that contains your credibility. Do it often enough, and that glass won’t hold water. Your glass is critical to your ability to be an effective leader and a good human being.

Clay Christensen from Harvard has just written a book called How to Measure Your Life. His most critical advice is to avoid the trap of marginal thinking. That is, the ability to think you can bend the rules just this once but still cling to your principles the rest of time.

It’s way harder to cling to your beliefs 98% of the time than it is to do it 100% of the time.

Carve out the time to look out, look way out
In a service business, the urgent always trumps the important, and for an agency CEO, there are so many potential sources of urgency.

In my experience, one of the casualties of that was finding enough time to think about what the world is going to look like in three to five years, and what to do about it now. In a time of fundamental change for our industry, that has never been more important.

It takes time and money to do this properly. You may need to hire an outside perspective to gain foresight and avoid situational blindness. Invest in your business just as you tell clients to invest in theirs.

Pinch yourself
You are working in one of the few industries on the face of the planet that allows you to mix commerce and art. You’re likely working with a group of interesting, smart people. And you’re working at a time when the industry is fundamentally reinventing itself. How great is all of that?
But before you let that pinch go, ask yourself if you want to be the leader for the right reasons.

I’ve seen too many people want and take the job because that’s what they think they’re supposed to do. Our business offers people the chance to find joy and purpose as commercial craftspeople, and be satisfied making a good living doing that. Be careful what you wish for. Then again, go for it.

Andy Macaulay is a founding partner and former CEO of Zig (which became CP+B Canada). Prior to Zig, he partnered with Geoffrey Roche to build Roche Macaulay & Partners. Both agencies are distinguished alums of strategy‘s Agency of the Year, with Zig finishing in the top five every year and RMP racking up multiple wins during Macaulay’s tenure.