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Building your agency’s bench

Updated December 19, 2021

Many of you are struggling with how to service all of your clients’ needs right now. The combination of a reinvigorated economy, The Great Resignation, and the perpetual staffing challenges that many agencies face, have left many of you short-handed.

Those agencies who have built a bench of talent over the years – largely in the form of independent contractors – have a bit of an advantage because they have existing relationships that they can tap into to get jobs done.

A strong bench gives you flexibility

Freelance and contract labor have traditionally been a good way for agencies to flex their labor force. Whether it is the battle against feast-or-famine or an ability to cope with broader economic cycles, being able to be elastic with your talent pool instead of being in a constant state of hiring and firing can be beneficial.

While now isn’t the best time to be building your bench of outside talent, it’s never too late to start – or too early for the next time you need help.

The trick to effectively building that bench is to never be satisfied with what you’ve got. In other words, if you need a writer to get a job done, don’t stop looking after you find a good one.

What does a good bench look like?

My rule of thumb is that for any type of work that you regularly need to fulfill on behalf of clients, you need to have at least 2-3 options readily available to you.

Some of those needs might be able to be met by your existing in-house team. That’s great, but don’t count your internal team members as more than one option. 

Build relationships with at least a couple of talented contractors who will be ready (and willing) to step in when you need the help.

Building your bench requires more than just putting names on a list, however.

Test the contractor’s capabilities

You might start with asking around in your network about who might be able to help with a certain type of project, but simply having a conversation with those folks to feel them out isn’t enough.

You need to start with a test project or two in order to make certain that they are a good fit. Doing this when you aren’t under client or time pressure can be especially helpful.

These test projects should be real work, however. You won’t really get the feel for someone if you create a “make-work” project just to see what happens.

But you can (and should) try to make it something that isn’t too time sensitive so that you have time to provide feedback and make any necessary adjustments to the work product before a client needs it.

Nurture the relationships

Once you demonstrate the capabilities of this new bench player, you need to keep them engaged.

That means finding ways to throw them projects from time to time so that they don’t just hear from you once every 12 to 18 months when you’re in a bind.

If you’re able to generate ongoing revenue for them over time, they’re much more likely to make room on their calendar for whatever urgent need you might have down the road.

Get the paperwork in order

The other advantage to feeding projects to your bench players on a regular basis is that you will be able to keep your contracts with them up-to-date and ensure that you have all of the proper financial and tax information already on file.

It may not seem like much, but if you can avoid having to deal with these things when you’re drinking out of the firehose and trying to find the resources to get a job done well and on-time, you will really end up appreciating it.

It’s OK to have an A Team

None of this means that you can’t have your starting team and give them preference. By all means if you find an ace designer, keep using them for most of your work. 

But be sure to find ways to engage your next-tier designers, too, so that you have an alternative if your first choice is already working on something else for you – or if they are otherwise unavailable.

Less stress, more profit

Employees move on to new opportunities, contractors get full-time jobs, and people get busy. There are many reasons that your first, second, or even third choice might be out of the mix.

The deeper your agency’s bench, the more options you have available to get the job done with as little stress and as much profit as possible.

Picture of 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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