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Keeping an eye on your agency’s finances

Agency owners can be reluctant to involve employees or contractors in managing financial aspects of their businesses, especially anything that involves access to bank accounts or credit cards.

The concern is understandable, especially with recent examples of even large agency financial team members stealing from their firms.

Chip and Gini argue that the solution isn’t to hold on to these administrative tasks yourself, but rather to set up some reasonable controls coupled with periodic checks to confirm that everything is running properly.

The co-hosts share some specific examples of what they do or have seen others incorporate into their processes to help prevent your success from getting sidetracked by someone else’s dishonesty.

Key takeaways

  • Chip Griffin: “Don’t get consumed by it. But put some reasonable controls in place, keep an eye on it and hopefully you will not be the next news story in the agency community.”
  • Gini Dietrich: “You should not be balancing your checkbook. You should not. I don’t. I personally don’t think owners should be sending invoices or having that money conversation because I think separating the money conversation with the actual work is important.”
  • Chip Griffin: “Don’t be overly concerned about it, to the point where you do control everything day to day because that’s not productive. But you do need to have checks and balances.”
  • Gini DIetrich: “You’re working with people. Something bad will happen eventually. You won’t be able to predict it. Be ready and prepared and minimize risk as much as you can.”


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

Chip Griffin: [00:00:00] Hello, and welcome to another episode of the Agency Leadership Podcast. I’m Chip Griffin.

Gini Dietrich: I’m Gini Dietrich.

Chip Griffin: And Gini, I think I just need some access to your checking account. You don’t mind, do you?

Gini Dietrich: Sure. No. Don’t mind at all.

Chip Griffin: All right. Right after this,

That pause may or may not come out of the final version.

Gini Dietrich: Did you lose the button there?

Chip Griffin: I, I forgot to, I forgot to cue up the intro music, so.

Gini Dietrich: Got it. I was like, where?

Chip Griffin: I had to go fishing for it after I made my witty little introduction, which was, you know, not, not one of my better ones anyway. But.

Gini Dietrich: You don’t want access to my checking account, is that what you’re saying?

Chip Griffin: I mean, I wouldn’t mind having access to your checking account. I think you’d be a fool to give it to me, but…

Gini Dietrich: No, you cannot have access to my checking account.

Chip Griffin: Oh, darn.

Gini Dietrich: Sorry.

Chip Griffin: You know, I can try. You know, just, [00:01:00] just, just like, we need checks and balances on this show to make sure that I don’t screw up. We need checks and balances in the financial life of our agencies.

How’s that for a better segue?

Gini Dietrich: I kind of like your, the first one better.

Chip Griffin: You like the checking account better?

Yeah. Okay. Yeah. Well, in any case, what we’re gonna talk about today is keeping an eye on your agency’s finances without getting to the point where you’re micromanaging everything. Because as the owner, you probably shouldn’t be in your checkbook on a day-to-day basis, but you do need to know what’s going on because, well, let’s face it, there are dishonest people out there, and we don’t necessarily spot them right off the bat.

Gini Dietrich: Yes. I actually had this experience very, very, very early on in my agency life. I hired an accounting firm to handle all the bookkeeping and invoicing and bill pay and all that, and they stole for me. Now, I was in the early stages of my business, so it wasn’t a lot of money. It was a lot of money for me at the time, but it wasn’t a lot of money for somebody to steal.

And [00:02:00] the CPA who did it is still in prison, I would like to say. But, it’s a very valuable…

Chip Griffin: I’m assuming they probably were not just stealing from you, if they were a CPA. They, they probably had a whole operation they were going on.

Gini Dietrich: Not just from me. Yes they were stealing from a lot of people. But it’s, it was a really good lesson for me in checks and balances and figuring out what to give access to and what not to give access to.

Chip Griffin: Right. And we’ve talked previously about the importance of giving other people access to your financial accounts as a business, because otherwise, if something happens to you, if you get hit by the proverbial bus or an actual bus, you want someone to have access to that sort of thing in order to keep things running, at least in the short term.

And if nobody else has access, that’s a problem. But if you start giving people access, then you need to think about what could happen and how to protect yourself.

Gini Dietrich: So one of the things that we do now is we have… you can give limited control on your banking accounts to certain people, and that’s what we [00:03:00] do.

So like I, our bookkeeper on our team can handle QuickBooks. She can balance the checkbook, she can do all that. She can pay bills, so she can, but only a pre-approved list of bills. So she can’t just like randomly send checks to whomever and she can’t randomly, she can’t do any wire transfers. And she can’t do any checking account balances or anything like that. So it’s very limited in what she has access to. My husband is the only one who has full access should something happen, but nobody on my team has full access to the banking account.

Chip Griffin: Yeah. And, and, and modern bank account logins often have that ability on business accounts so that it’s a lot more flexible than it was, say, even 10 or 15 years ago, where you could, you know, you might have a shared login that you had to use with your bookkeeper or whomever.

Sometimes you could have a separate login, but you couldn’t control access levels. Now there’s a lot more flexibility in it, [00:04:00] and so to the extent that you have that, you should absolutely use that because that minimizes the risk. It doesn’t eliminate it. There are still things, obviously with that level of ability that you still could do, but it’s, it would, it would be less catastrophic because they can typically only bleed off small amounts of cash at a time as opposed to just walking away with your entire bank account.

Gini Dietrich: Right. And the other thing you can do is set up controls so that if somebody wants to send a wire or a bill pay that’s not on your list it texts you or emails you or calls you. So you can set that up as well. And it asks, and it only can come to you. So unless they have access to your cell phone as well, and I do it to my cell phone because my assistant has access to my email.

So I’m really careful about who has access to what. So you can set up those kinds of controls too, to make sure that, like you said, to minimize your, your risk.

Chip Griffin: Yeah. And look, I mean, this is unfortunately not an uncommon problem in the agency world. Obviously you described your personal situation, but there have been some large agencies that have had [00:05:00] issues with even CFO level individuals.

So this isn’t necessarily limited to just, you know, your run of the mill bookkeeper type. It can be very senior officers who you wouldn’t even imagine would be doing this kind of thing, but they might, and we’ve seen several cases in recent years where large agency CFOs or other financial officials have gone to prison for this very sort of thing where they’ve been funneling money to themselves.

And it doesn’t necessarily even have to be someone who’s directly responsible for finances. It can sometimes be, you know, an operations person who oversees the finance team. So, obviously for small agencies it’s more likely to be a bookkeeper, accountant, someone like that who might do something, but you know, it’s something you need to be aware of.

You shouldn’t be overly concerned about it, to the point where you do control everything day to day because that’s not productive. But you do need to have checks and balances like the ones that you’ve described. Another suggestion that I typically have for owners is make sure that you’re looking at an actual [00:06:00] bank statement from time to time.

Not just reports prepared by your bookkeeper or accountant, but something that comes directly from the bank, whether that’s you logging into the account and just kind of skimming through and seeing if there’s anything unusual there. If you have company credit cards, make sure that you’re looking through the statements to make sure that there’s nothing in there that pops out at you and you say, Hmm. Now that those skimming type exercises don’t necessarily find everything, because they can still sometimes be, you know, small transactions that will add up over time.

They can come back to bite you, but at least you will spot any large scale things that might be taking place if you’re looking at the actual original documents yourself and not relying on prepared reports that can be cooked to hide these kinds of things.

Gini Dietrich: The other thing I will say is that I have a really good friend whose assistant was stealing money for a very long time out of petty cash. And would just take a couple hundred bucks a week and was just compiling it all. And when they finally caught her, [00:07:00] she, my friend, said, well, I don’t understand why you did this. Like, you’ve been my assistant for 20 years. What’s going on? And she said, When I first did it, it’s because I really needed a refrigerator and I couldn’t afford it, and then I just kept going.

And I remember my friend saying, if she had told me she needed a refrigerator, we probably would’ve bought her one. Because that’s how, what she, what she thought from a loyal employee perspective. So even stuff like that, if you, you know, many of us don’t have offices and petty cash anymore, but if you do those are places where people can skim money as well.

Chip Griffin: Right. I was, I was gonna, I, I don’t know many businesses that have petty cash anymore, at least on the agency side of things. But I suppose, maybe there are still some, but that, that’s obviously a very logical place where money can go missing. Just it, it gains feet and walks away. But yeah, a as you grow, even looking at the original statements may not be enough.

And so you may want to think about having a more formalized system for doing spot checks on certain transactions. Just randomly [00:08:00] select certain ones to dig into them and just make sure that they are on the up and up and whether that’s something that you do or maybe you have your accounting firms, you know, double check your bookkeeper or something like that.

Not necessarily a full fledged audit. I don’t think most small agencies need the expense and, and complication of doing a proper audit, but, You know, some sort of a partial audit might be beneficial just to, to keep an eye on things and, and make sure that there aren’t any little issues that crop up, or if there are, you can spot them before they become big issues. Because it’s, it can be really surprising who, you know, who does this sort of thing.

I know people, frankly, who have been caught doing this, and I was shocked when I found out. It was not something I would’ve ever imagined. And, You know, whether it’s because someone needed a refrigerator and found that, that, you know, you could just take one step and then you take the next one and the next one you keep going, or whether it’s someone who’s just really good at hiding stuff, you just don’t know.

And so it’s, it’s worthwhile putting some measures in place for the peace of mind that it gives you. [00:09:00]

Gini Dietrich: Wasn’t it the CFO at Weber Shandwick that was just a few months ago arrested?

Chip Griffin: Yes. Yep. And, and there was another senior level accounting person who worked for two different agencies in the New York, New Jersey area. I think this was just two or three years ago, got arrested for the same. And, and these were large sums of money in those cases. This was not, you know, a thousand here, a thousand there. I mean, this was substantial amounts of money that, you know, and, and intricate operations as well, if I recall correctly, where they were basically bogus contracts created and purchase orders and things like that to cover up the tracks.

So, I mean, that’s one of the things you have to keep in mind is that people who are at all good at this don’t simply go and withdraw the cash and send it to themselves. You know, they, they send it to a family member’s company or something like that, that, so it, it may appear to be legit on the surface, which is why, you know, at least a, a partial spot check audit kind of thing can be beneficial as you grow just to, to look in on particular expenses and make sure that [00:10:00] they are what they appear to be.

Gini Dietrich: The other thing that I like to do is once a year sit down with my banker. And have him go through with me all of the controls that we have in place. And then he also gives, so we go through everything and make sure, you know, everything looks good and then he’ll say, okay, we’ve introduced this, this, and this this year.

It might be valuable for you to do these kinds of things. So he helps me sort of stay ahead of what else is off out there, you know, two factor authentification or whatever it happens to be that allows us to, that allows me as the owner to stay ahead of all of that and continue to minimize my risk.

Chip Griffin: Yeah, and, and, and having those kinds of professional relationships, whether it’s with a banker, a lawyer, an accounting firm that is not directly touching your bank accounts, those kinds of things, it can be helpful because they can give you good advice and, and particularly if you’ve got an accounting firm that is not involved in directly touching your bank accounts, but just deals with reports to prepare taxes and forecasts and that kind of stuff, [00:11:00] they can be helpful because they can tell you what they’ve seen in terms of problems and solutions at other similarly sized businesses, and so they can provide some really useful practical tips on what you might do in order to avoid getting bitten by these kinds of scenarios.

Gini Dietrich: Yeah, having the outside accounting firm double check is advice I could have used 10 years ago.

Chip Griffin: Yeah. And, and it’s, I mean, it, it is one of those things where unfortunately, a lot of folks don’t deal with problems until they experience it themselves. And that’s understandable. Right. And you do have to be careful because you don’t really become paralyzed by fear about, you know, oh, this might happen or that might happen.

It’s one of the reasons why a lot of small agency owners keep too many things on their plates. Because they don’t trust the people around them. And so, you know, if, if you don’t trust anybody around you, that means that you will be micromanaging, that you will be doing a lot of low value work because you don’t want to hand it off to somebody else.

So you do need to find that healthy balance of how do you hand it off. [00:12:00] But still keep an eye on it. And this is true not just of financial controls. This is true of any of the things that you’re doing, client service, business development, anything that you’re passing on to someone else, you need to think about how do you pass it on?

Still maintain the level of trust, but also as Ronald Reagan would say, trust but verify. And I’m not gonna try to say that in Russian.

Gini Dietrich: A friend of mine does training of chief operating officers, so your second in command, and he has a really robust business that does this. And he posted a, a quote the other day that said, and I can’t remember who it was by, but essentially it said, if you are doing, if you don’t have an administrative assistant and you’re doing admin work, you are the administrative assistant.

And for some reason that really hit me where I was like, that’s actually true. And that’s not work I should be doing. Like I should have somebody handling that. And I think this is the same thing, like you should not be balancing your checkbook. You should not. I don’t, I personally don’t think owners should be sending invoices or having that money conversation because I [00:13:00] think separating the money conversation with the actual work is important.

So having somebody who does that, that you can trust, but making sure to your point, verify and making sure you have the the controls in place is extraordinarily important.

Chip Griffin: Right. And, you know, obviously you, you know, hand in hand with this is making sure you’re vetting the people that you’re hiring or contracting out the work to. Make sure that you’re, you know, checking references.

Particularly if it’s, you know, someone that you’re gonna be entrusting with your bank accounts. Make sure that at, at least you Google them if not, you know, do a more formal background check over anybody who has financial control access. But again, you’ve got to take some reasonable level of risk by delegating, and at some point, if something bad’s gonna happen, it’s gonna happen.

Just do your best to try to spot it quickly.

Gini Dietrich: Right. I mean, you’re working with people. Something bad will happen eventually. You won’t be able to predict it. But if you’re ready and prepared and you are minimizing risk as much as you [00:14:00] can, that’s so be it.

Chip Griffin: And, and every person who does something bad does something bad for the first time, so you can’t always find out that someone is bad, because maybe you’re the first person that they do it with. Like in the example of the, the refrigerator stealer.

Gini Dietrich: Right. She was like, I would’ve bought you a refrigerator. Right. And she would have, oh yi yi yi yi. People.

Chip Griffin: Yeah. You just, you just don’t know. You just don’t know.

Don’t get consumed by it. But put some reasonable controls in place, keep an eye on it and hopefully you will not be the next news story in the agency community.

Gini Dietrich: Hopefully not. And if you are, call me and I will let you cry on my shoulder because I have been there.

Chip Griffin: And with that, I think we’ll draw this episode of the Agency Leadership Podcast to a close. 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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