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Agency owners must lead by example

Updated December 10, 2021

The culture of public relations and marketing agencies starts with the owner — perhaps even more so than with other businesses.

When the culture of an agency goes bad, it is usually because of the owner.

When an agency thrives, it is usually because the owner has set a good example.

We all know that business owners are in charge and can do what they want. But just because you can doesn’t mean you should.

Here are some of the ways that employees look to the agency owner to see examples of how to behave.

Work habits

If an agency owner shows up late and leaves early, it signals to the team that there may be a lack of commitment. This doesn’t mean that owners need to sacrifice all of their flexibility, but if you roll in to the office at 10 AM and out at 2 PM every day, employees will take notice.

On the flip side, if the owner puts in long hours, employees will feel more reluctant to cut corners. They will see the commitment and most will seek to emulate that.

Similarly, if the owner works from home regularly, it is more difficult to tell employees that they can’t do the same.

The more the owner separates from the team in terms of work habits, the less productive the agency is likely to be.

Cost controls

Spending restraint starts from the top. When employees see the owner being loose with company funds, they’re more likely to follow suit.

Agency owners should consider this when they book travel, equip and decorate their personal office, host business meals, and incur other expenses.

Employees will even look to non-business spending for cues. If the owner pulls in to their personal parking space in a Ferrari, the team will notice and may figure they don’t need to pinch pennies since the boss is doing so well.

Policies and processes

Do you want your team to fill out time sheets to track project profitability? Then you should do so, too.

Do you have standard practices for hotel quality and airfare class when your team travels? You should follow the same rules.

Do you use project tracking software to see where things stand? You should participate, too.

Does this mean an owner can’t cut any corners? No, but every time you do, employees will notice and either follow the example — or potentially resent it.

Interpersonal behavior

Agency managers — especially new, less experienced ones — will look to the owner/boss for examples of how to behave.

Authoritarian owners tend to lead to authoritarian managers.

Owners who ignore input inspire middle managers to ignore input from their own teams.

Agency leaders who manage through fear foster others to do the same.

At the other extreme, owners who do not demand accountability from their own direct reports will see the same behavior spread throughout the agency.


If the agency owner keeps too many secrets from the team, the employees will keep secrets from the owner.

That doesn’t mean that employees need to be in on every little detail of the business, but there needs to be careful consideration about where to draw the line on what is confidential and what can be shared with the team.

Successful agencies have open lines of communication — in both directions.

Vision and inspiration

If the agency owner can’t simply articulate the vision for the business, employees won’t be able to do it either.

Good leaders need to be able to explain the goal and the path to get to it — and then inspire the team to follow them.

Successful agencies have the entire team on the same page. Everyone uses similar language to describe the services and focus of the business.

Agencies rot or rise from the top

Any business relies on its leaders for guidance and inspiration.

By the very nature of PR and marketing agencies, the owner has an almost outsize influence on success or failure.

Agencies struggle when the owner take a “do as I say not as I do” approach to running the business.

Agencies thrive when the owner sets a good example and provides real leadership.

There is no substitute for leadership by example — and it starts with the agency owner.

Chip Griffin

Chip Griffin

Chip is the Founder of the Small Agency Growth Alliance and a longtime agency leader and entrepreneur. He helps PR and marketing agency owners build businesses they want to own.

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