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ALP 27: Your agency’s most important client — itself

Chip and Gini take a look at why you need to treat your own agency as if it were a client — and how to do that most effectively.

This episode includes feedback from the Spin Sucks and Agency Leadership communities on Slack where agency owners have shared their own stories of how they operationalize the concept.

During this episode, you will learn:

  • How to use your own agency as an R&D tool
  • How you can empower up-and-coming leaders within your agency
  • How to turn agency self-care into new revenue
  • How one major technology company uses its own product — and what agency owners can learn from this

A few notable quotes:

  • “If you’ve got an up and comer who you’d like to assign to a third party client in the near future, have them run your internal client service team for your own agency.” – Chip
  • “That’s how Spin Sucks was created. We did it as an experiment to see if this blogging thing that everybody was talking about was something that we could offer to clients. And here we are.” – Gini
  • “Why make the client the guinea pig if you can be your own?” – Chip


CHIP: Hello, and welcome to another episode of the Agency Leadership Podcast. I’m Chip Griffin

GINI: and I’m Gini Dietrich.

CHIP: And we’re here today to talk about your agency’s most important client. Do you know what that is, Gini?

GINI: Uh, your agency.

CHIP: Bingo. You know you listened to our pre-production meeting. I’m so glad. It’s always good when we’re on the same page as co-hosts, because otherwise it can be pretty confusing.

GINI: I have to tell you, though, before we start that I was in a meeting earlier today, and Kathryn Mason was there. And I said to somebody, they asked a question, and I said, Well, it really depends. And Kathryn goes: So you’ve been around Chip Griffin too long. And then I went, and it depends. There you go. You’re famous.

CHIP: In fairness, I have to say I am not the person who invented that. No, but but but it is it is one I use, quite liberally it

GINI: It did come up. So I thought it was funny.

CHIP: Excellent. Well, just proof positive that at least one person listens all the way through to the end of the podcast. Most of you are probably debating whether to hit the stop button and skip to your next podcast right now. Please don’t, this is going to be a great episode, I promise you we’ve actually come prepared. We’ve got lots of meat to talk about. It’s this is this is not going to be one of our off the cuff episodes, we’ve given it some serious thought.

GINI: I feel like you just gave our secret away. I don’t think people know it’s off the cuff.

CHIP: No, but it turns out some people do notice because I had a listener last week say “you know, I really liked the ones where you have really concrete action items for me, and you give us a lot of detail.” And so I said So what you’re saying is sometimes we just kind of blabber on and don’t say anything all that useful. Got it? I understand what you’re saying.

GINI: Alright. Fair.

CHIP: So, in any case, yes, the look, the as an agency, it is really important that you take the the skills and the expertise that you have and look inward with it and not simply provide it to third party clients, because that is at the core of how you will be successful over the long term.

GINI: Sure. Yeah, it’s it’s interesting, because it’s a tough one. Because certainly, if you have a team inside your agency that focuses on your agency, that’s revenue and capacity that’s taken away from paying clients, right. So there’s something to be said for that. But I thought what Kevin Mercury said in the Spin Sucks community was really, really valid. And he said, We don’t really treat it as a client, per se. But as an employee who’s performance is under routine scrutiny. The agency needs to keep clients satisfied, make payroll and more. So I have to perform. And that’s exactly right. That’s the exact right way to look at it.

CHIP: It is and I think that, you know, if you’re, if you’re going to do this, right, there needs to be some level of review and accountability. And so, you know, there’s a lot of different ways that you can do it. And frankly, treating yourself as a client. I think a lot of different agency owners, and we saw this in the responses both in the Spin Sucks community as well as the Agency Leadership Slack community that people perceive this slightly differently. So I think some people saw it is simply saying, you have to pay attention to your own agency and its needs. And and the way I tend to think of it and the way I think some of the other owners in the space, talked about it, it’s really more using your own specialty as an agency and making sure that you’re executing on that for great, so and both are important, you know that there’s there’s real value in both. And frankly, in the past, I worked for an agency where we had set up an actual client service team for the agency itself. So we treated it exactly as we would have any external client had an account lead, we had representatives from the different functional areas within the agency, just as we would for one of our large enterprise clients. We also had someone from the executive team that we reported to as if they were an external client. So you know, it was really sort of almost taking it to the extreme of how you do it. But I think there’s real value, I think there’s value to them following the same process early.

GINI: Yes, yes. And then it makes certain that that work is done, and it’s not an afterthought or is not put on the backburner. You know, in the early days of my agency, we had a managing supervisor who is one of the most talented people I’ve ever worked with from a communications perspective. And she taught she, I’m fairly certain she taught me more than than I taught her. But one of the things she would say to me is, you know, we really have to do our own PR, and I would fight but I would argue with her, I would say you but our clients don’t want us to be doing our own PR, they want to know that we’re doing PR for them. And her argument always was, but clients choose agencies, and this was 10 years ago, she clients choose agencies based on what they’re reading in the trade publications. And I would say but our clients don’t want to see, isn’t it like we would have this back and forth. As it turned out? She was right. And I was wrong. But it’s I think it’s really valuable from that perspective. Because it all in today’s realm, I think what happens is, let’s say that you’re pitching social media, and you don’t have social media accounts or active social media accounts, or it doesn’t you don’t demonstrate that you know what you’re doing, but another agency does, where, you know, just human nature is going to fall on your competitor’s side, because they have demonstrated that they know how to do this work.

CHIP: And absolutely right. And if you’re if you’re going to be known for something, you know, it’s all well and good to sort of dismiss it with the well the cobbler’s kids have no shoes, right? Well, you know, that only takes you so far, right? Because at some point, I mean, if you’re an SEO agency, people are going to expect that you’ve optimized your site so that you show up well in search results. And I know, frankly, I look at some of the big SEO vendors, and I’m always curious to see how they’ve structured their site and some of those things, and you can learn from it. So hopefully, they’re doing it correctly, because

GINI: You’re copying them?

CHIP: Well, you’re not copying, but being informed by them. Same thing, you know, if I’m a digital design firm, or something like that, I’m going to look at their website. And if if if their website looks like it’s, you know, set up in the 1990s, and still has blink tags, well, I’m probably going to be unimpressed. So and it Look, depending on what your particular agency specializes in this, this, you know, may or may not be more obvious, you know, to a client, you know, if your if your specialty is Media Relations, for example, sometimes that can be a little bit hard to tell from the outside for an agency, but you still need to be working on it, you still need to. And I thought one of the points that you made in in this, I think was in the Slack channel. And this may have been in the back and forth you had with Joe Thornley, you’re talking about experimenting with things internally and learning from those, you know, if you you experiment on yourself, the risk is much lower. And so it’s a good way to learn new techniques, new technologies, try new approaches, that sort of thing.

GINI: Well, and that’s what Joe said, he said, I view it as demonstrating our capabilities on our own dime. In other words, if we test new techniques, channels and produce results for ourselves, then we can feel confident recommending them to clients. So yes, we receive the benefit as an agency, and we get a change to learn less chance to learn lessons and make mistakes and a forgiving environment, which is the exact same way that we do things.

CHIP: Right. And it’s and that is, you know, so the other thing that you can do is, you know, if you’ve set it up as a, almost as a client service team itself, it might even be an opportunity to give someone more junior on the team, some great experience in running an account.

GINI: Love that.

CHIP: And let them go through the steps, the same reporting steps, the same decision of allocation of resources, all of those things that you have to do in managing a client relationship. But just do it on yourself. Because that way, if they screw up, great, it’s a learning experience, you can explain to them how to do it better, and you’re not putting at risk any external revenue.

GINI: Yeah, I love that. And it works. Because then you start Yeah, I mean, that’s how Spin Sucks was created. We we did it as an experiment to see if this blogging thing that everybody was talking about was something that we could offer to clients. And here we are. Right? Yes, it’s something that we offer to clients, and it’s become his own business. So there’s opportunity there as well.

CHIP: Now we did there was a little bit of pushback in the Spin Sucks community, or at least someone who raised a challenge. And that was Shane Carpenter. And so one of the things that he said is they say not to do business with friends and family, because it’s hard to separate the two, I have found, I run into the same issue as the client and the agency owner. And look, this is this is a good point, sometimes it can be challenging for you to treat yourself as a client. And if you’re going to do it, you need to do it with that formality that I talked about earlier, because it is quite easy to just keep pushing it to the back burner and say, you know, look, I’ve got all this other client work I have to do. So this this particular one, you know, we can’t focus on ourselves. And, and I will say that this does tend to work better, you know, once you’ve got at least a little bit of size to your agency. So you don’t have to be giant by any means. But it’s a lot harder, when you’re an agency of one, two or three people Oh, I would still argue you need to set up some sort of a similar process. But I will grant that it is much more challenging at that point to do it as properly as I would like to see you do it. But it’s still worthwhile to do it. And I would say if for some reason, you come to the conclusion that you absolutely can’t, well, then you may need to find an external partner to help you on it because people are still looking at you. So, I don’t see why you wouldn’t want to just, you know, make the resources available yourself to do it. But if for some reason you feel like you’re just you can’t have the distance to do it properly, or what have you, you know, still make sure that it’s getting done. And that may mean outsourcing some of the work.

GINI: Well, I have an advantage of knowing Shane’s business pretty well. And I would I would argue, especially in his case, and where it’s, it’s a solo printer, or freelancer who’s starting to build their agency, you the things that you’re doing to market your agency and might not be you know, getting articles in the trades or doing your own SEO or doing social, but it might very well be going to networking events and doing business development, that also is treating your agency as a client, you’re not going to even have a salary to pay your rent or your mortgage if you don’t do that. So in some cases, it’s you know, like you said, as you grow, you start to add on the more marketing types of things, but in the beginning, it’s business development, it’s networking.

CHIP: And just as you would for any of your clients, you need to adjust the strategy and the tactics to fit so, right, you know, if you’re working at an agency, or if you want an agency that is in digital promotion for healthcare, say, you know, you can say very easily Well, you know, we work we do is for healthcare. So that’s not, you know, we can’t have ourselves as a client, we’re not actually healthcare, but the same tactics and techniques can be applied to your agency. So it’s still that, that proving ground to your clients that you know what you’re talking about, it’s still an opportunity to experiment with things and still an opportunity to find ways to grow your agency in a smart way.

GINI: Mm hmm. Yeah, I mean, we all have to grow. And to Kevin’s point, we have to make payroll in some cases, you know, of course, it was just yourself, then you don’t yet but you may have freelancers that you have to pay, we have to make payroll, we have to keep our doors open.

CHIP: I would just object, if you’re solo, you still have to meet payroll. It is a little bit different. But you should if you’re running an agency of one, you should still know what your quote unquote salary is. Absolutely. And and be targeting that number and then setting aside whatever is above that, yes, for growth or for dips, or whatever, because those will happen. So yeah,

GINI: and you can’t do that if you’re not focused on growing your agency.

CHIP: Exactly. And I also liked what Jonathan Bernstein said in the Agency Leadership Slack community, he said that his agency is its most important client, because it has to be because reputation is his most important asset. And as he says, we tell our clients that and we try to walk the talk. And so I like how Jonathan is thinking about that.

GINI: So there was an article, I think it was Ad Age, was it Ad Age, about Survey Monkey. And one of the questions that was they were asked in the interview was, you know, how are you using your own tool to support your business?

CHIP: And and that’s a big company, huge. If a big company is thinking about this? Well, probably all of the agency owners are listening to this ought to be thinking about it as well. But what was the what was the specific instance in Survey Monkey that they were using it for? Do you remember?

GINI: I don’t remember.

CHIP: it, I believe it was for employee satisfaction was particularly what they were looking at. Yes. And so the it was actually an interview and Ad Age with, and I’m going to butcher this pronunciation, but what the heck, I’ll go with it anyway. And then when my wife is helping to transcribe this podcast, because listeners, the podcast transcript is originally done by Otter AI, but then my wife goes in and cleans it up. So kudos to her for having to listen to Gini and I talk each week.

GINI: Every week.

CHIP: I’m sure she will ask me how to spell this name, though. The name is I’m going to pronounce it is Leela Srinivasan, who is the CMO of Survey Monkey. And one of the questions that she was asked was, how they use their own product. And so she talks about in that piece about eating in your own restaurant. So you know, and there’s all sorts of different expressions that people use eating your own dog food eating in your own restaurant is a classier way of saying that, I suppose, drinking the Kool Aid, whatever you want. In this part, that’s a horrible expression, when you actually think about where it comes from. But in any case, so she talks about how they use it. And she says, in fact, they may use it too much, because they’ve got it so readily available, but what they’re doing is on a monthly basis, they’re doing surveys of their employees to get feedback and make actual adjustments based on the data. So if you’ve got any kind of a business, but particularly an agency business, you’re able to take this, use the skills that you develop, improve your external communication, improve your internal communication, there’s a lot of things that you can do with it to help improve how you are actually operating.

GINI: Yeah, I love the eating in your own restaurant analogy, because it’s true. I mean, you you need to experience what your clients are experiencing. And especially as you grow, this has always been a real challenge and something that’s front and center in my brain as we grow, which is, will they continue to have the same level of service and success and results as they did when we were smaller. And, you know, we we’ve seen instance, after instance, where companies in general get really big, and they it that stuff goes by the by and some of it can’t be avoided. But I think, you know, it’s something that you want to keep front and center and continue to eat in your own restaurant so that you know, what kind of experience your clients are having.

CHIP: And I think that, you know, the the key is to make sure that you’re coming up with systems and processes for this, because it’s, it’s very easy to say you’re going to do it. But the follow through is where there’s some degree of complexity, but it’s also where the success comes in. So that’s why I’m a fan of coming up with an actual client service team. But no matter how you do it, you want to make sure that you have a routine, a cadence to it, that you’re reporting, you know, even if, honestly, even if it’s just yourself, produce reports for yourself periodically, on what you’ve done and what you’ve accomplished. Yeah. Because it’s, it is a really good way to think about what you’re doing and how you’re investing your time if you’re solo, but how you’re investing your team’s time, because you need to be seeing those results out of it. So don’t while it is good to be experimenting, you also want to make sure that it’s driving towards an ultimate goal. Otherwise, you just you’re spending hours or as an old boss of mine used to say it’s motion but not progress.

GINI: Right. Right. And, you know, I mean, it’s, I think there’s an interesting shift that happens when you start, quote, unquote, reporting results for your own agency, you start to look at the ways that you’re reporting results to clients as well. And you start to realize that while while the industry that you’re in may talk about specific results, and there’s, you know, everybody reports on the same things for your industry, they may or may not make sense for your organization, in which case, they may or may not make sense for the client, but it allows you to think about the work that you’re doing for clients from a business perspective instead of a marketing perspective. And I think that changes your ability to report results in a more meaningful way.

CHIP: I think it can also be a way for you to feel some of the frustrations that your clients have. Because I think there’s any one of us who has been on either side of an agency relationship. And over the course of my career, my career I’ve been on both sides of it, obviously been an agency owner, and and provided services and agency employees, I’ve done plenty on the agency side. But I’ve also hired a lot of agencies over the years. And there is no matter how good the relationship is, there are points of frustration along the way. And understanding those is as it’s often said, you know, if you if you’ll walk a mile in another man’s shoes, you know, you’ll have a greater appreciation. It’s the same thing here. So if you’re forced to take a fresh look at how you’re servicing clients, it will really help you to improve the way that you’re delivering on those services throughout the whole process. Absolutely. So, you know, don’t discount that value as well.

GINI: Yeah, I mean, yes, it definitely allows you to look at things differently and have a different perspective, for sure.

CHIP: But I do, you know, I think that, that that experimentation that you talked about, to me, that’s where there’s just, there’s a ton of value in this, because, as we, you know, think about the kinds of things that we’re talking to agency owners about a lot of it, you know, as often, but what’s what’s a better way to do this? What’s the, what’s the next thing what, you know, where do we need to be? And so trying to think and experiment and and test? There’s agencies don’t i don’t think….I don’t think they think of themselves as an r&d operation. And yet, we are.

GINI: We are! Yeah, that’s a really great point, that’s actually a really good way to think about it really good. You absolutely are r&d.

CHIP: And it’s, that is the only way that you will continue to advance if we look around, and I’m sure we can all think of some agencies that we think of as is old fashioned and stuck in the old ways. And those folks unless they’re trying to find new ways to innovate, on how they deliver services, what they’re delivering, they’re probably not going to be around in five or 10 years, right? You need to continue to evolve. And so if you, if you don’t say, hey, look, I’m not I’m not a software company, I’m not a hardware company. I don’t, you know, we don’t make widgets. So I don’t need to think about R&D, that’s absolutely incorrect. You need to, you need to have that function. And you need to have it in some sort of a systematized way and doing it within your own agency as a client team. That’s the perfect place to do it. Because it, it takes it out of the isolation. You know, we’re we’re all just sitting there. Oh, hey, let’s go try this crazy new tool. Right? To what end? Right. So you know, when you can actually try it in the same way that you might use it for a client, you’ll learn a heck of a lot more than just, you know, dabbling with it for fun, which, hey, I admit, I do that. I love clicking on shiny new objects trying them out, Oh, yeah, I tried a couple the other day. And why make the client the guinea pig if you can be your own?

GINI: Yeah. And it has all these benefits all these benefits. So absolutely. Plus, it’s fun.

CHIP: It’s fun. It’s always fun to play with new toys,

GINI: Very fun to play with new toys.

CHIP: Big, big time waste of times. But what are you going to do? So I guess that that that sort of wraps up in the in a nutshell, I think that the key thing is that I would like agency owners to be thinking about here as far as treating themselves as a client, use it not only for the benefit of the agency, but also as a proving ground to try new things as a way to demonstrate your own expertise to potential clients so that they say Ah, they actually they do know what they’re talking about. Maybe I should hire them?

GINI: Maybe I should hire them. That’s what we want.

CHIP: And that that is ultimately the message that I hope people have taken out of this show. Are there any other messages that you would like them to take out of the show, Gini?

GINI: I like that message: we want to be hired, we want to do good work. That’s what that’s why we’re here. So yes. Do it so the clients go Oh, yeah. Or prospects, I guess at that point go Oh, yeah. I want to hire them.

CHIP: Clients, too. Because I mean, you have to remember clients are paying attention to what you’re doing as an agency as well, maybe not as closely as a prospect investigating you? Well, yes. Sometimes, sometimes you’re surprised you’re like you. We made this announcement six months ago. You didn’t hear it? What, huh. But but you know that but they are they do pay some attention. And so you do want to make sure that, you know, they’re continuing to see you evolve, because ultimately, you want clients to stick with you if possible.

GINI: Yes, because it’s a lot cheaper and easier to keep clients than to get new ones.

CHIP: It is. Absolutely. And it’s a lot cheaper and easier for us to have repeat listeners. So we hope you will come back. Was that not good? Come on.

GINI: That was that was a great segue. Amazing.

CHIP: Eventually you’re going to like one of my final segues here. You’re not going to just burst out laughing in the middle of them. But the reality is, we don’t pay for any of you as listeners. So you’re all cheap.

No, no, still no?

GINI: No, no, keep trying. Maybe next time.

CHIP: We’ll just we’ll just we’ll just drive this episode right into the ground and say thank you for listening. I’m Chip Griffin,

GINI: and I’m Gini Dietrich ,

CHIP: And it depends.

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The Hosts

Chip Griffin is the founder of the Small Agency Growth Alliance (SAGA) where he helps PR & marketing agency owners build the businesses that they want to own. He brings more than two decades of experience as an agency executive and entrepreneur to share the wisdom of his success and lessons of his failures. Follow him on Twitter at @ChipGriffin.


Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She is the author of Spin Sucks, the lead blogger at Spin Sucks, and the host of Spin Sucks the podcast. She also is co-author of Marketing in the Round and co-host of Inside PR. Follow her on Twitter at @GiniDietrich.

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