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Be smart about titles at your agency

Have you ever given serious thought to the structure of the titles at your agency? Or have you dealt with them simply as one-off decisions with individual employees?

In this episode, Chip and Gini explore how — and why — you should be more thoughtful about how you hand out titles to employees. More important, they discuss how a mindful approach to titles can help you to retain your best employees.

Of course, there’s also discussion around the problems that come from title inflation that can be quite common in small agencies.

Key takeaways

  • Chip Griffin: “You need to create some uniformity, some salary bands across the business so that you don’t have two different account managers making wildly different salaries. Because they’ll eventually figure it out.”
  • Gini Dietrich: “Throwing titles out at somebody just because that’s what they want is probably not the most effective way to run your business.”
  • Chip Griffin: “If you’ve got someone who’s being overpaid for the role that they’re in, or they’re over titled for the position that they’re in, it creates tension with the rest of the team as you grow.”
  • Gini Dietrich: “Probably one of the easier things you can do as an agency owner is create that spreadsheet, understand what those titles are, what the salary bands are, and how quickly you think people might move.”

Related

The following is a computer-generated transcript. Please listen to the audio to confirm accuracy.

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

Gini Dietrich: And I’m Gini Dietrich.

Chip Griffin: Gini I, I need to figure out, you know, what, what should my title be? I don’t, I don’t really, I feel like I need to progress some here, and I feel like Host just isn’t enough. I, I need

Gini Dietrich: Okay. We can, we can discuss that. Sure.

Chip Griffin: Okay. Right after this.

So we all know that it’s really, really hard to retain people in agencies and it’s, yeah, and we want to keep our best talent around. I don’t know about you, but I found employees really are pressing more and more these days to feel like they’re continuing to progress. And that means, financially, title wise, bonuses, all that kind of stuff.

And the conversations that I’m having with agency owners indicate that they’re kind of struggling with figuring out how to do this in a meaningful way without just throwing money at the problem or making everybody a vice president or that kind of thing. So I, I thought that would make for an interesting discussion today.

How can we set up some real structure? Behind the career paths that we give our teams and the, the, the way that we compensate them both in title and in money.

Gini Dietrich: Yeah. And I think at the same time, you know, I’ve had a couple of situations where I’ve been in the negotiation process with a new employee. And they’ve asked for a title that’s way above their pay grade and experience level because they think it’s gonna look good on their resume.

And from my perspective, like I don’t care if I make you a VP or Senior Vice, like whatever. The, the challenge that though is that when you leave with that title, you’re gonna, you, in your mind are going to be demoted because most organizations are not gonna give you that same title because it doesn’t match your pay experience.

So I think there’s a lot of things to think about. From that perspective as you’re building a comp plan and a career path plan for your employees.

Chip Griffin: Yeah, and it, it hurts them externally, which they don’t realize right when they, right. When they do decide to move on to some other opportunity for that very reason.

But it also creates challenges internally when you’re not being thoughtful about your title structure across the team, because maybe one person cares more about title, so they become a vice president. Another cares less. Right. But you still wanna reward them financially, and now you’ve got, you know, someone who’s an account manager who’s making the same as a vice president or vice versa, you know?

Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. It just gets really, really messy. And, and this is something that I think small agencies really struggle with. It’s something that, that I struggled with, with some of mine because you, you know, from my perspective, I just didn’t care. You want take whatever title you want. Yes.

Right? I, I never cared about titles, right To the only time I ever thought about a title was in terms of what did it mean externally. You know, did someone, you know, so for example, when I ran my own business, I wanted to make sure I had a title that was, you know, CEO or president or something like that, so that if I needed to enter into a partnership conversation or something like that, people felt they were speaking at the right level.

But I didn’t care. You call me an intern, right? I mean, it doesn’t matter. It’s, it’s what I’m doing and, and what I’m being paid and all that kind of stuff. But some people do care about it and you do need to be thinking about how do you structure that? And the sooner you think about that in your agency, even when you’ve only got one or two employees, you need to be thinking about how do you create that kind of career path so that people can advance, and how do you create some uniformity, some salary bands across the business so that you don’t have two different account managers making wildly different salaries?

Because they’ll eventually figure it out.

Gini Dietrich: They, yes, they will. You’re not supposed to talk about your salary, and yet they do. You know, for me, I, I’m the same way as you are. Like, I don’t care about titles. If you want a content director or content VP or whatever it happens to be. Okay? Chief Content Officer.

Okay. I don’t really care, but. What this, what, when this changed for me is when we were working with a client that had a really professional HR team internally, and because part of the work that we were doing was in with them was internal comms. We had access to all of the work that they did around this, around career path and around salary bands and around compensation and benefits and all of that.

And all of a sudden I went, oh, I get it. And it, I mean, The HR leader, the chief people officer, just kept a simple spreadsheet and it was okay. If you’re in marketing, there are, there’s a copywriting job, there’s a design job. You know, like she had it broken down. There’s an account management job. She had it broken down into all the different spheres, and then across the top she had, you know, entry level, which was like account coordinator, assistant AE AE, senior AE, account supervisor, senior account supervisor, like she had it all the way across and there was probably 20 years of evolution through all of those titles in each of the segments. And then she had the salary bands for each and, you know, and this was a startup, so whether or not when you got equity and all that kind of stuff. And it was really eye-opening for me because I, I finally realized this, even though I don’t care.

It’s what people need. It’s what your employees need, right? People need process, they need structure, they need to understand. If I do these things, I can get promoted to this next level. So just throwing titles out at somebody just because that’s what they want is probably not the most effective way to run your business.

Chip Griffin: Right. And, and at, you know, less experienced levels, people like to continue to see themselves progressing on a very regular basis.

Very, yeah. It’s like every six months or so.

Yeah, and, and, and I wouldn’t necessarily propose changing everyone’s title every six months, but you should have something where, you know, every 12 to 18 months people do have the opportunity to, to move up, even if it’s, you know, not necessarily a huge jump in title, but you should be thinking about using things like senior account manager, right? Yep. So now you’ve got, you know, instead of going from account manager to account executive, you know, you, you’ve got senior in the middle there, right? And, and you could even, when I, my first job was a junior account executive yep. When I started out in Agency world.

Now I, I’m not a huge fan of using junior in, in public facing titles because you know, a lot of times people don’t want to talk to someone who they think is junior. So from a client standpoint, that may not be the best thing. But, you know, you could always do sort of an internal, you know, you’re an account manager right now, you’re a junior account manager, you know, business card will say account manager, but you know, you’re a junior, sort of like the, the military does.

You know, like in the Navy where you’ve got you know, what is it Lieutenant JG, right? So they, you know, the junior grade lieutenant and a regular lieutenant. Still call ’em lieutenant, still call ’em lieutenant, but, but they’re at, at different grades. Yep. And if I screwed that up, my apologies to my military friends, but anyway, it’s, I they have those kinds of things.

Something like that. Yes. Right. The rear admiral, upper half, rear admiral, lower half. Right. I mean, they’re still a rear admiral. They just have different numbers, stars on their, on their shoulder. So, you know, those are the kinds of things that you might think about having some internal title differentiation. You know, if you want, in order to continue to show that steady progress to people and you want to use those titles, as I think we’ve talked about before, if you’re giving someone a meaningful raise, they need to have a title change and responsibility change with it, right? Yep.

Absolutely. You don’t wanna have someone who’s doing the exact same thing they were doing yesterday, and all of a sudden you’re paying ’em 10%, 15% more, right? That’s, that’s not a good message to send. You need to make sure that people understand there’s a correlation between your compensation and what you’re doing.

Gini Dietrich: Yeah, and I think the other thing that that does, especially if you have it written down and you have it public for everybody, they can say, okay, I see that I’m at this level now and here are the things I have to do to get to the next level. So they take most, most of them, 90%, 95% take responsibility for that, right?

So they’ll say, okay, I need to do professional development in this. I need to make sure that I have access to clients that do this. I need to do this, this, and this. And they’ll take responsibility for learning those new skills to be able to, to be promoted and, and they will also take responsibility to come to you and say, Hey, I think I’m ready, and here’s why.

And that’s, That’s the kind of motivation you want to provide employees because that will give them the opportunity to be in charge, be sort of control their own destiny with inside, inside your agency.

Chip Griffin: Yep. And, and you have a lot more flexibility with these titles than you think you do, right? I mean, I, yeah.

One of the, one of the things I talk with agency owners about a lot is that you can get pretty creative with your title structures so that you have more and more steps that people can move through. So you can have account managers, account executives, as we talked about, you know, having senior portions of those.

But you can be, you know, account director or director of accounts, a director of public relations. I mean, there’s all sorts of different things that you can do so that you’re able to continue to hand out progressively… I would say different, not necessarily even better. Right? Because there are some agencies where an account, an account manager is senior to an account executive, and I’ve seen the opposite too, right?

I mean, it just, a lot of it depends on where someone started and, and what the, the convention was at their first agency, and then they carry that forward when they have their own agency. Yeah. But there’s, there’s no magic to this. It’s, and, and it’s one of the reasons why you have to be careful when you look at salary benchmarks across agencies, right?

It’s not just that they’re in different locations and have totally different business models, it’s that an account manager in one is not the same as an account manager in another, in many cases.

Gini Dietrich: Yeah. And I think, so I would do a few things. I I would definitely look at salary surveys to understand what’s out there.

Not just from a location and an industry perspective, but also from an experience perspective and, and create it for your own agency. You know, for us, I, I actually took you know, when I worked for Fleischman Hillard, it was very clear. You knew exactly and they had a really, they had a really wide range of titles, and so I implement that, implemented that in my own agency.

So there are, to your point, There are probably three or four levels within one group. So an account executive, an account manager, an account supervisor, like managing supervisor. You have three or four levels inside there, each of those so that you progress along that. So it’s really just about thinking about how you want to do it.

To your point earlier, you know, if you don’t want to have junior in the title externally, what does that look like? You know, internally and how do you discuss that with your employees? So, but it’s not, This is probably one of the easier things you can do as an agency owner is create that spreadsheet, understand what those titles are, what the salary bands are, and how quickly you think people might move.

Is it six months? Is it 12 months? Is it 18 months? Is it 24 months? And, and set those expectations and now you have it so that everybody’s on, you know, sort of singing from the same hymn book.

Chip Griffin: Yeah. And, and not only that, but it also helps to protect you from title inflation, which is a, a problem, not just from a compensation standpoint.

Yeah, yeah, yeah. But it’s also a problem as you grow, because if you’re scaling up, you may want to bring in some higher level talent and you know, if you’re going to do that, they’re going to need to come in with a higher title than the, the people that are going to be reporting to them. Mm-hmm. Are being junior to them otherwise.

And so, you know, if you, if you have too much title inflation and you’ve got someone with three years of experience as a vice president, well now what are you going to do when you want to, to bring in someone who’s got 10 years of experience? Right. Right. You know, even senior VP is probably not enough of a bump over someone that they’ve got three times the amount of experience of.

And so you, you want to make sure that you’re being cautious about that and be really careful about anything where it makes someone sound like they, sounds like they are in charge of something overall. Right. Right. So, you know, be really careful with C level titles. You know, I’ve seen some folks who, who want to add, you know, I, I need, I’m going to make this person my chief operating officer.

Well, but they were your assistant two years ago. Yeah. But they’re really detail oriented. Cool. Right. Make ’em a director of operations or something like that. Right. Something where you can easily layer them. Yes. If you get to the point where you need to do that, because it’s really difficult once you’ve got a COO to find a title that is more senior than COO without giving up your own.

So, so you want to be thinking about those kinds of things and the sooner you think about them, the better because I’ve seen agencies go through trying to, you know fix their title structures and fix their salary bands and it is really, really painful. Yeah. Yeah, because you can’t really demote somebody.

But ultimately, if you’ve got someone who’s being overpaid for the role that they’re in, or they’re over titled for the position that they’re in, it creates tension with the rest of the team as you grow. So solve this when you’re at those, you know, one or two employee levels and not when you’re at 20 or 30.

Gini Dietrich: Yeah, and I think that’s a really good point too, because when you’re at the one to five to 10 employees. You’re like, yeah, sure, I’ll make this person the chief operating officer. I’ll make this person the chief client services director. I’ll make this person the chief marketing officer, this person, the chief content officer, whatever happens to be.

And all of a sudden you have a bunch of people who, A, should not be C-suite, B should not be on your leadership team, and C don’t have the experience of that title. So that when you start to grow, all of a sudden you’re like, oh crap. This person I want to hire is actually a really experienced chief content officer, but I can’t bring them in at that because I already have one.

Right? So really be really thoughtful about those kinds of things.

Chip Griffin: Give yourself that wiggle room. And, and, and like I said, make sure that you’re matching up the titles with the salary bands so that if, if two employees talk and they’re both account managers, they’re being paid similarly, and you don’t want one where the, you know, one’s getting 25% more than the other.

If you’re going to pay someone 25% more move them up to a different title band. Yep. That, that corresponds with that. So when you’re putting together your list of titles for your agency, make sure that they have salary bands next to them so that you, you can always deviate slightly out of them, but, but try to stay as tight to those as possible because it will keep you out of trouble.

It will make sure that you’re having, you know fairness and equity across your team. And it will also put you in a position where you’re more ready to, to grow and scale as the time comes.

Gini Dietrich: And I will tell you that if you grow to a point where you need either a fractional HR person or you hire an HR person, or you have an outsourced HR organization, they’re going to make you go through that process. And they’re going to say, they’re gonna make you look at everything and say, okay, are these people being paid fairly and the same?

Are they within that same salary band? And the client I mentioned earlier, one of one of my personal jobs with the chief people officer was to do that work to figure out. And what we discovered is that in this organization at the time, this was five years ago that women and people of color were not paid the same as white men and title not withstanding.

And so what we set to work to do was to correct that. And she, she was great. She was really good to work with because she taught me a lot about running my own business from that perspective. But she was like, listen, In some cases, we’re gonna have to give these women or people of color a title jump because we have to get them within that same salary range.

And it took a couple of years of really strategic planning to get people where they needed to be. But that was her sole job for, for two and a half years, was to do that so that they will require that you do that. So just make it easier on yourself now, because otherwise it’s gonna cost you a lot of money later.

A lot.

Chip Griffin: Well, and to that point, I think, you know, if you are being consistent with matching up salary bands to titles, it makes it easier for you to spot where you may be being unfair and, and not being consistent, right? Because a lot of times you forget what someone’s salary is except when you sit down and you, I mean, I, I, I know that, that after I had, you know, more than two or three employees, You know, I often had to look up on a spreadsheet to see, okay, mm-hmm what am I actually paying them?

Because I don’t know it off the top of my head, and I wouldn’t expect most agency owners to know that. But when you see their title on a daily basis, you can sit there and say, you know, should Sally really be paid more than Dave? Because you know that their titles are, are different. And so that helps you to, to see it in a way that you wouldn’t if you had to go back to a spreadsheet to figure out am I paying them 50 or 55 or six?

Yep. Somewhere in that general ballpark, but I can’t remember when I last gave them a raise, I mean, Yeah. Yep. It’s just natural. But the, if you’re being consistent with your titles, then you can figure out, okay, you know, these folks are really the same. They should be at the same title level or Sally’s much better.

Sally should have a more senior title, which means you should be paid more. And, and so the more that you’re thinking about that, I think the more it helps to, to achieve your goals that most agencies I know have when it comes to you know, equity amongst the employees.

Gini Dietrich: Yeah, for sure. It’s, it’s It’s an, I actually think it’s a fun exercise, but it’s definitely an exercise that you need to do.

And like I said, just put your buckets on the left hand side of a spreadsheet, put your titles all, all the titles that you can think across the top and then start to break it down. And, you know I love spreadsheets, so it, it may be more fun for me than, than it might be for some of our listeners. But it will give you a really good place to start and then you can start to fill things in as you hire people.

Chip Griffin: Right. Because if, if you’re not doing this, then you’re gonna end up with people who are completely out of whack from either a compensation or from a title standpoint. Yep. You’re gonna make it too difficult to retain staff cuz you’re not gonna be able to show them that steady progression because you sit there and say, well, you know, I, I can’t make you a VP and I’ve topped out.

No. You’ve got, you’ve now got a spreadsheet with a list of like 30 options of, of different titles and I’m not kidding That’s right. There could be at least 30 options on that. That’s right. Spreadsheet so that you can cover someone throughout the entirety of their career from straight outta college, all the way on to, you know, they’re about to hit retirement.

Why not? There’s no reason why you can’t have that kind of, information available to you. No. Yeah. And it’s, it’s really not that difficult. It’s kinda fun. Yeah. It, it, it can be kind of fun to think about, you know, what, you know, what, what exists out there, what might work for you yeah. In the future.

And, and, and dream about having that team of 20, 30, 40 people. You know, where the, the titles actually make a bigger difference in how everybody interacts with each other. Right? So think about all these things. Cause you gotta have these tools available to you.

Gini Dietrich: And as an aside, if you’re on video, I’m in my car office today, which is why this looks strange.

Chip Griffin: Yes. I I would encourage you to check out the video even if you don’t watch it, it regularly because it is… lots of cars drive by cars driving by Gini’s sitting here with her sunglasses on sunny out. Yep. She does not usually do in her home office. I, no, I don’t normally, which is good cuz that would be a little bit weird if, if you did.

I mean, I can, but.

Hamster’s weird enough. I don’t think we need sunglasses too, so.

Gini Dietrich: All right, well, if you change your mind, I can, I can definitely make that happen.

Chip Griffin: In any case, I, I don’t want you to get a parking ticket, so we probably should draw this episode of the Agency Leadership Podcast to a close so that you can feed the meter, move along what, whatever it takes to, to avoid the, the meter maids of Chicago.

So with that, I’m Chip Griffin.

Gini Dietrich: I’m Gini Dietrich,

Chip Griffin: 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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