Manage a growing agency? Wrong verb!

The 'true' story goes something like this: an attractive Canadian movie critic once approached a well-known actor at a party during one of the first Toronto Festival of Festivals. She asked, 'Hey, do you want to dance?' The infamous Hollywood lothario looked her in the eye for an extended moment and then replied 'Wrong verb baby, wrong verb.'

The ‘true’ story goes something like this: an attractive Canadian movie critic once approached a well-known actor at a party during one of the first Toronto Festival of Festivals. She asked, ‘Hey, do you want to dance?’ The infamous Hollywood lothario looked her in the eye for an extended moment and then replied ‘Wrong verb baby, wrong verb.’

So when Strategy asked me to do a series of columns on managing a growing independent agency, I requested, in a very low-key way, a verb change. Leading, not managing, is the key for agency principals seeking success in the future.

What’s the difference between a leader and a manager? John Kotter of Harvard Business School once wrote ‘Management is about coping with complexity. Leadership by contrast, is about coping with change.’

Unless you’ve been sharing a forest-view condo with Rip Van Winkle lately, chances are you have noticed that ‘shift happens’ these days with a speed never experienced before. Hyper-paced changes to the economy, consumers, communications channels, distribution channels, agency-client relationships (get a Grip!) are just part of the brave new world we all must welcome now on a daily basis. A manager may resent that. A leader must relish it.

Don’t get me wrong, managing things well does have its place as a key success factor in a growing agency. But as a complement to leadership, not as a substitute.

There is a plethora of books and seminars on how to manage an agency that suggest how to do things right with advice and counsel that focuses on the present, the predictable and the bottom line. I have attended most of these courses and read all the books over the past 10 years and have learned plenty. Mostly about how to structure an organization based on a 1950s postwar model that is based on a command and control hierarchy that operates by set percentages (also established in the ’50s) and that tends to treat clients as the necessary evil of doing business. I was instructed on how to contain risk, not encouraged to take risk. These days, the riskiest thing you may do in the agency business is to play it safe.

What are the key responsibilities of the leader? Vision. Inspiration. Innovation.


Stating what is expected with regard to quarterly earnings does not qualify as a desired future (that’s a management goal).

Your people are the key to your success. Agency leaders must provide the people in their organizations with a vision of what future success looks like. And that vision must appeal to both the head and the heart of the individuals on the agency team. A vision that is perhaps far-reaching, maybe altruistic and memorable is preferable. (The vision statement at Quarry is to be the best integrated communications organization in the galaxy.)

The leader can set the course or direction of the agency based on that vision. Key business decisions, as well as day-to-day ones, are made with that simple statement in mind. Does this move you forward towards the vision? If it doesn’t, then don’t do it. Common sense.


Once the direction is set, the leader must inspire the members of the agency to work together to achieve success. The key is not to organize and command the staff to walk in a lock step towards the shared vision but to ensure that the team is aligned and headed in the same positive direction.

Open, clear and direct communication is vital to keeping the team in the loop. Good leadership will help people operate with the ‘speed, simplicity and self-confidence’ that ex-GE chairman and CEO Jack Welch so rightly espoused as being essential for any successful company in the future. And leaders should check their egos at the door. Walk the talk and participate. This is about we not me.

One of the key inspirational roles for leaders is to help develop and nurture a positive culture that promotes collaboration and continuous learning. This is the kind of empowered environment that people want to work in day in and day out. It fosters less turnover, better-prepared staff, more value delivered to clients and great work. The best way for agency leadership to create this type of workplace? Simple. Attend and graduate from the Aretha Franklin school of management with a degree in R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

Creating a consistent atmosphere of respect goes a long way in building relationships with agency people and is soon transferred to client relationships as well.


Many years ago, Lee Clow of Chiat/Day distributed a white cotton shirt to the entire Venice Beach staff at their annual meeting. Printed on the front of the apparel was ‘Innovate or Die’ and the back read ‘Death is not an Option.’ Leaders of growing agencies in Canada should be visiting a nearby T-shirt shop soon. Innovation in the agency business has to happen. Fast. Successful agency leaders must adopt new approaches, not just adopt the historic internally focused existing structures.

And the motivation for suggesting such heresy? The clients, the people we are in business to serve, are demanding it. Smart organizations in this category (like the one I work with) changed their approach several years ago to ensure that antiquated structure and bureaucracy do not distract from the focus on helping clients succeed.

Managers staff up and down. Leaders create other leaders. This is one of the most important roles of leadership in an agency. The evolution of most successful organizations is based on their ability to create strong, confident people who keep pushing forward.

In my opinion, The Simple Art of Greatness by James X. Mullen (Penguin, 1995) is the best-written book on ad agency leadership. Mullen, the founder of a great U.S. agency on the east coast (visit, states: ‘Long ago, I concluded that the safest way to build a business is [to] create a dangerous workforce – one that is motivated, enfranchised and happy.’ Mullen passionately believes that happy people equal profit. ‘The most reliable way to achieve long-term profitability is to create long-term employee relationships based on fairness, loyalty and trust.’

Vision and mission seem like soft stuff to you as an agency principal? Clientcentric structure and a healthy, happy agency culture seem secondary? Sorry then, you’re in for a rough ride.

Alan Quarry is the president of Quarry Integrated Communications, a Waterloo, Ont.-based company that began as a one-person, traditional ad agency in 1973 and has evolved into a state-of-the-art communications solutions provider with 130 employees, and offices in Toronto and Dallas. Quarry can be reached at aquarry