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Chaos is not a virtue for agencies

Agency leaders need to stop casually discussing the chaotic environment common to so many agencies.

Too often you will hear firm owners and others talk about agencies as hectic and fast-paced environments.

Chip and Gini have had enough of this talk — and they both admit that they, too, used to embrace the idea that it was an unavoidable circumstance for agency life.

Chaos is the sign of a problem that needs to be solved, not an acceptable condition that leaders and their teams should adapt to.

Key takeaways

  • Chip Griffin: “Chaos is not something we should be embracing. Chaos is something that we should be solving.”
  • Gini Dietrich: “The younger generation is not going to put up with a situation that creates chaos and leads to burnout.”
  • Chip Griffin: “Recognize that you have chaos and commit to ending it.”
  • Gini Dietrich: “Focus on getting the work done and pricing correctly. And if you do those two things, you will not burn your team out.”


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: And Gini, we, we got to do this and so many things and the to do list is, oh!

Gini Dietrich: Chaos, chaos, chaos.

Chip Griffin: Right after this. I’m just, I’m, I’m all crazy. I don’t even know what to do today. I just. Too much going on. It’s, you know how it is. I mean, it’s, it’s the agency world where it’s got so many things to do busy. I mean, busy, busy, busy, busy, busy, busy.

Gini Dietrich: Lots to do, lots of clients, lots of fires to put out.

Chip Griffin: But it’s just, it’s just the way it is.

I mean, you know, it’s just the way it is. That’s, that’s how agencies are and always have been and always will be.

Gini Dietrich: That’s right. Speaking of chaos,

Chip Griffin: if you’re, if you’re watching on video, you will see a dog, if you’re listening, you have no idea.

Gini Dietrich: Cute puppy. Say, cute puppy alert. Okay.

Chip Griffin: Hi. Okay. Anywho, I think having a dog around my house would be chaos, but so here’s the problem.

You know, agencies seem to wear chaos as a badge of honor. They, they just, they’re almost excited to tell you how chaotic things are and how busy they are. And, you know, and, and we just, we, we very casually in talking with other agency owners or with people outside the agency world, even we just talk about the chaos of agencies.

And I got to tell you. That’s not a good thing. And I mean, I used to be one of those people. I used to think, Oh yeah, it’s just, you know, busy is good and chaos is great. And it’s, you know, it’s just part of the culture. The problem is that chaos is the sign of a problem. Chaos is not something we should be embracing.

Chaos is something that we should be solving.

Gini Dietrich: So I’m pulling up your LinkedIn post on this because I thought it was really good, which is, it’s not a rant.

Chip Griffin: It’s a diplomatic rant.

Gini Dietrich: Some agencies talk about chaos as a badge of honor, which I agree with. And I think our society is in general talks about busy ness as a badge of honor.

So it leads into that as well.

Chip Griffin: Well it’s the whole hustle culture thing. It is you watch YouTube video. You just need to hustle more. And look, I. I mean, I am, I am not a good example of work life balance and all that kind of stuff. I, I, I like to work, I make no bones about it. That doesn’t mean that you have to have everybody doing that same thing and just in having that, that sense of care, that that’s the only way to function.

And unfortunately it’s become that.

Gini Dietrich: Yeah. And so I think you say, you know, Often, this is, what I really appreciated about the post was this, “often when an agency leader describes the firm as a, quote, fast paced environment that relies on, quote, self starters, what it really means is that the team is overworked and stressed out without the right level of management and mentorship for individual employees.”

So good.

Chip Griffin: Yeah. I mean, and we see this we saw this recently in a Spin Sucks community post where a young former agency employee was on there looking for career advice and said, I don’t know what I want to do basically, but I know I don’t want to be in an agency again. Yeah. Cause it’s too much. And you know, and, and, and I hear owners who will talk about, yeah, well that’s, that was just someone who couldn’t cut it in, in the agency world.


Gini Dietrich: Which I feel like I’ve said before.

Chip Griffin: Me too, right? I mean, but at some point you need to realize that if you are in that kind of environment, you are not getting the most from your team. We talk about team as you know, the team’s our best asset. You know, the team’s our differentiator. Well, then, you know, why are you subjecting them to this kind of fast paced environment and, and talking about the chaos as if it’s a good thing.

Instead, you should be sitting there and saying, Why is it so fast paced? Why does someone have to be a self starter? Why do we accept that you just have to work overtime all the time? These are not good things. These are fundamental problems in any business, whether it’s an agency or otherwise, and so you need to be sitting there and saying, rather than embracing the chaos, What’s causing the chaos?

What is the root cause of it? And how can I solve it? Is it that I’m not pricing correctly? Is that I’m not staffed correctly? Is it just that I don’t have realistic expectations, right? And I’m, I’ve been guilty of that one a lot over the years that, because I mean, owners think everybody’s going to be just like them.

And so, you know, if I can write an op ed in 20 minutes and I can, yeah, I used to want to hire people who could write an op ed in 20 minutes. Guess what? There aren’t a whole lot of people who can write op eds in 20 minutes, right? There aren’t a whole lot of people like me who would have a colleague and we’d have a race to see who could write an op ed faster.

Because those are the crazy things that we would do. Not everybody is like that, nor should everybody be like that. And we shouldn’t be pressing for our team to, I mean, we don’t, we, we still want to press for excellence. We still want to get, you know, I’m not telling you to settle. I’m not telling you to get bad employees, but at the same time.

Be realistic in all of your expectations.

Gini Dietrich: Yeah. I think, you know, one of the things that especially the younger generation is really good about, and this leads into the conversation we had in the Spin Sucks Community, but I think, you know, our generation was just like grin and bear it and, and push through.

And we don’t have mental health issues and we don’t have, we don’t need to take time off and we don’t have families totally separate, but this younger generation is like, no, like. There are things that I have to tend to as a human being and it’s not all work all the time. And so as owners we have to look at it and we have to say, okay, how are we providing the best environment for our team?

And to your point, it’s not to overwork them and burn them out, it’s to and provide chaos. It’s to say, okay, if you are working, I actually just had this very conversation with an agency owner client of mine last week where she said somebody’s feeling burned out because she’s spending about three fourths of her time on one client.

Okay. So if that’s the case, what do we need to do both with the client and with the colleague to ensure that you know, first of all, they’re not paying for three quarters of this person’s time. So how, what do we need to do? And we talked through the steps to, but that she needs to do with the client to set expectations, but also to work with the employee to ensure that she’s, she’s spending more like a quarter of her time with this client versus three quarters of her time.

But those are the kinds of things that create the chaos and create the burnout and all these things. And the younger generation is not going to put up with it. They’re just going to be like, okay. Peace out. And just like the conversation in the Spin Sucks Community, I think she’d been in an agency for only 18 months and was like, this is not for me.

And it was because it was chaotic and she burned out in 18 months.

Chip Griffin: Well, and I mean, look, this is, I don’t necessarily think I wouldn’t attribute as much of it to the, you know, the younger or newer generations. I think this is, this has always been there. It’s just that most of us who are making this observation have shifted where we sit.

You know, but, but if I think back to 20 or 30 years ago in the agencies that, that I was either working in or was very familiar with, you know, there were plenty of younger people who were like, this is crazy. You know, I, I don’t, I can’t have any kind of a social life because… you know, we, everybody sits there and basically it’s a contest to see who can sit at their desk the longest.

That’s right. Right. And, and if you, if you left, you know, anytime during the five o’clock hour, you were like, Oh, you’re leaving early today, huh? Yeah. Yeah. You know, and the norm was six, seven, eight o’clock at night. And that was normal because chaos was embraced. Yes. And I, that just, it didn’t make sense then.

It doesn’t make sense now. I think employees know that they have more leverage today. That’s right. Than they did in the past. Yes. Combination of reasons, you know, the labor market, the fact that with most businesses professional service type businesses being at least hybrid, if not remote, means that you have a lot more options.

You know, you don’t have to be just looking for someone that’s an easy commute to you, which dramatically limits your potential places of employment. So, you know, it really has shifted the dynamic as far as being able to act on the concerns that have always been there. And so, I mean, I think agencies need to be paying attention to this.

And one of the things that I did recently was I created something called the Agency Health Assessment, basically a 30 point, almost like a car tune up inspection checklist kind of thing. And one of the questions in there is effectively, do people in your agency regularly work overtime? Because they shouldn’t. It shouldn’t, it probably shouldn’t be never right.

Cause you know, you want to have some urgent projects or something. I mean, that there is some level of, of value to having those in there. And it means that you are being relied upon oftentimes by a client, but if it’s yes, I mean, I have employees working overtime every week and by the way, not getting paid because, you know, at least here in the U S the laws are such that most agencies can get away without paying actual overtime pay. You know, that’s a problem. You shouldn’t be in that state. If you are in a state where the only way it functions is for employees to be working regularly more than 40 hours a week, it means that you are not pricing correctly or you’re not resourced correctly.

And those things need to be solved sooner rather than later because it will come back to bite you.

Gini Dietrich: Yeah, I mean, and think about your own, like, from your own perspective. I mean, I certainly have run the gamut, right. To your point in my early, early career, I would, you know, if, if the partner of our profit center was still sitting in her office, even if we didn’t have work left to do, we sat at our desk and sometimes it was 9 or 10 o’clock at night because she didn’t have a social life.

She had nothing else to do except work. And so we would sit at our desks and do clips or whatever it happened to be because she hadn’t left yet. I remember getting pulled over at 2 o’clock in the morning on my way home from work once because the, they thought I was drunk. And in fact, I was just so freaking tired because I was working all the time that he was like, the cop was like, I’m going to escort you home because you’re going to fall asleep at the wheel.

So you start your career that way and you think that that’s the way it goes and then you build an agency that does the same thing because that’s the way you think things are done. But I don’t know about you, but I’m at a point in my career where I’m like, I don’t want to work like that anymore.

I don’t even want to work 50 hours a week anymore. So if I don’t want to do that, how can I expect that my team is going to do that? And, and I’m not resourcing them correctly. So I always, I’m constantly, and we talk about this all the time you and I. It’s, it’s all about figuring out, are we priced correctly?

Are we charging enough? Are we resourcing correctly? And you know, there’s, there’s this whole thing, I think in agency life where you say, well, my, my mid managers, my mid level people have to be 95 percent billable. Stop focusing on those kinds of things. Like let’s focus on getting the work done and ensuring that we’re pricing correctly.

And if you do those two things, you will not burn your team out. It will not be chaotic and you will actually find yourself with time where you’re like, Oh my gosh, I’m not crazy busy. This is great.

Chip Griffin: And look, the problem with chaos is that if you’re an agency owner, you either become part of the chaos, and it’s just as stressful for you, and that I think is the most common.

Or, you find a way to normalize things for yourself, and the rest of your team is living in chaos. In which case, they not only are unhappy, but they are also resenting you, because they are seeing that you are not living that same life of chaos that they are. And so, you know, I think it really requires people to have that commitment to saying, Chaos is not good.

Chaos is a problem, and then taking the time to figure out what it is that’s causing it for you so that you can start to address it. Because, you know, look, I mean, I have plenty of owners who come to me and say, yeah, it’s, you know, it is chaotic. You know, we, you know, people are, they’re stressed out, they’re burning out.

What do I do about it? I, you know, clients won’t pay more, you know, and so I, I just don’t know what to do. Well, look, if, if clients won’t pay you what the work actually costs to execute, then you need to figure out what you can sell to them. Yep. If anything, yep. That will. And if not, the solution is not to continue to provide something at less than the cost that you need to charge in order to have a well seasoned team that is not overworked and also generates the profits that you need in order to have a successful business.

Volunteering your services effectively to companies just doesn’t make any sense. Stop doing it.

Gini Dietrich: Stop doing it is right.

Chip Griffin: If they won’t pay it, you don’t give it. Come up with something else to sell. Come up, find a way to give them what they want, but have it take less work. I mean, there’s, you can, you can solve this problem in many different ways, and I’ve been doing a lot of webinars and trainings on annual planning recently.

One of the things we talk about is how you can re scope work as part of that. I mean, you, and I always talk about the example with you where you not only do it on a, on an annual basis, but you do it on a quarterly basis with clients to re scope the work in order to make sure that it remains aligned.

And so. You know, that’s one way to solve the problem. The other way is just say, yeah, it’s going to cost more to do this, right? But most agencies I know charge roughly the same amount today that they did 5 or 10 years ago. Because most agencies, particularly small agency pricing is based on whatever their last agency that they worked at, worked at charged for something.

Well, you know, we used to charge 5,000 a month for PR. So we’ll charge 5,000 a month for PR. Well, cool. That was 2005.

Gini Dietrich: Right.

And as we learned, that’s, that was almost 20 years ago, which is shocking, but yes.

Chip Griffin: Yeah. Thanks. I was talking with someone the other day and he was, there were three of us and one was my age and one was younger. And we’re talking about Survivor that came up somehow. And I said, oh yeah, I watched the first season, but I never saw it after that.

And, and the younger guy said, oh yeah, you know, I started watching in Season 19 when I was in college. Oh, jeez!

Great. And the guy who was the same age as me was just like, no, great, thanks. Yeah. I mean, look, time passes, but we need to remember that. Right? Because almost everybody that is listening to this is an owner. Almost all of you have 10, 15, 20 years or more of experience. What worked back then does not work now in terms of pricing, business models, anything.

All of these things need to continue to evolve. And the reason why you have this chaos is because you are trapped in the past. In all likelihood, you’re, you’re running it like that old shop that you used to work at, which was chaotic because that is, I mean, I’m not going to, you know, sugarcoat it. That is the culture of the agency industry.

And even now in 2023, it is embraced by people, even agencies that are doing well financially. They still will often embrace the chaos. Stop doing it.

Gini Dietrich: Yep. Yep. One of the things that I’ve noticed of late is… and not, not necessarily clients of ours, but like industry wide, I’ll get emails from people, PR professionals in the industry who work at an agency on the weekends and it happens consistently.

And it’s, you know, maybe they’re inviting me to a podcast or I’m writing an article for them, whatever happens to be, but they’re working on the weekends and it consistently happens where there I get emails from people in the industry on the weekends because it’s the only time they have to get the work done.

And every time I do that, I see that I’m like, Oh my gosh. Like the, the job of the agency owner is to ensure, in my opinion, to ensure that the work can get done during the week. And if your team is working their weekends to even if it’s to do the marketing for the agency that means you’re not resourced correctly They should not have to work the weekends. Now there are exceptions -crisis events, trade shows, things like that, right?

But if they are generally working to your point if they’re working over time if they’re generally working on their weekends to be able to catch up so that they can go into Monday with a clean slate – That’s a problem. That’s what’s creating chaos.

Chip Griffin: And you’ve got to start with yourself on this right?

You need to make sure that as the owner you are not living a life of chaos yourself. Now, that doesn’t mean that you can’t work weekends, right? But how do you, how do you think about doing it in such a way where you’re not signaling to your team that they ought to be doing that too? And part of that is making sure that you’re, you’re giving them workloads that they can manage within a normal work week at the office or remotely or however you’re operating.

But part of it is looking at, at how you’re doing things. And so maybe you do work on the weekends as I do. But maybe you, you pick and choose the kinds of things that you do then so that maybe you’re not emailing your employees constantly on the weekend, right? So you work on things that, that don’t require that.

One of the things that I, I started doing a number of years ago was I stopped doing most client work on weekends and used weekends instead for bigger picture, longer term, you know working on the business kind of things. And so that then also helped to set, you know, good boundaries with clients so that you’re not sending them emails over the weekend and then…

Gini Dietrich: Or answering their emails on the weekend.

Chip Griffin: Yep. Or, or answering their emails on the weekend, which then invites them to continue doing it. Correct. And so, yes, there are, there are a lot of little steps that you can take as an owner to begin to erode the chaos culture. Some of them are gonna take more time, right. I mean, not emailing on the weekend.

That’s an easy one. That’s a quick fix and you probably could start doing it right now. Just as soon as you’re listening to this, you can commit. I’m not going to send my employees or clients emails on the weekends, except in emergencies. That’s it. Some of them will take longer. Repricing, rescoping work.

Those are not overnight. You don’t just snap your fingers and say, aha, we’re done. You know, we’re going to charge you 50 percent more, or we’re going to do less work or whatever. But, but now is actually, as we’re recording this, you know, we are in Q4. It is a great time to be thinking about how you scope your work for clients in 2024 and how you price that so that it does get you to a place where you can take the chaos away from your team, you know, gradually over the next, you know, six to 12 months. And get to a rational operating level because that’s how you will be successful.

It’s not by just, you know, recruiting people who are okay with the chaos. That is not the answer. And you need to just if the word chaos comes out of your mouth and there’s a smile on your face. It better be because you’re talking about the old TV show, Get Smart, and not because you’re talking about the work environment at your agency.

And I’ve really dated myself here, so. So all of you listeners can go Google Get Smart. Get Smart. I’m sure you have never, ever heard of it.

Gini Dietrich: I’ve never heard of it.

Chip Griffin: But KAOS was essentially, it was a, it was a sitcom from the 60s. And it was basically, KAOS was essentially the, the KGB. So, but it was, this is the one where Maxwell Smart had a shoe phone.

So if you’ve ever seen someone pretending to talk on a phone talk on a shoe, that’s where it comes from.

Gini Dietrich: That’s funny, I didn’t realize that. So you end your, your LinkedIn post with this. “The trick is to get to the root of the chaos. It could be the result of any number of things, including poor expectation setting with clients, bad pricing, insufficient resources, often due to bad pricing, lack of focus, inefficient management structure, missing processes, or something else.

The sooner you can diagnose the chaos, the quicker you can make the changes needed to put an end to it.”

Chip Griffin: Yeah, but it really, and I appreciate you reading that, but I think the most important thing is to just recognize that you do have chaos and commit to ending it. Yep. Right. Because if you, if you don’t, then all of those other things are just, you know, they’re sort of, that’ll make me feel good for a few days, but you just have to commit to no longer accepting it.

And when you see another agency owner talking about chaos, don’t say, Oh, you know, wow, that’s, I admire that. Right. Because they’re successful. You know, don’t, if you’re, if you’re out there listening to the various agency advisors on YouTube who talk about chaos as if it’s just, yeah. It’s chaos. And they don’t necessarily embrace it, but they, they accept it.

Right. And, and, and accepting it is just as bad. You know, we know this in a lot of other aspects of our lives. When you, when you accept a bad thing, it is basically the same as endorsing it. If you accept the chaos, you are endorsing it. You are saying, not that it’s just a necessary evil, you are saying you’re okay with it. Don’t be okay with it.

Gini Dietrich: Don’t be okay with it. Yes. Do not be okay with it.

Chip Griffin: With that, we’ve taken a slightly chaotic path to get here, but not too bad. I think we kept some decent focus for us.

We certainly wander in the wilderness quite a bit on this show before we get to our final points. But today I think we more or less paddled in the same direction towards a successful conclusion, but that will draw to an end this episode of the Agency Leadership Podcast. 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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