Know when (and how) to stay in your own lane as an agency

Agency owners so often hear about the importance of not just being order-takers and finding ways to be more strategic by understanding a client’s real challenges and opportunities.

And that’s absolutely true.

But that doesn’t mean that you should veer outside of your lane into areas where the client doesn’t want you to go — or worse where you don’t have the expertise to do well.

Understanding where those boundaries are will give you the room you need to expand your engagements and the value that you provide, while not becoming something that you’re not.

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, I wish you just do your damn job. Can you do that for me? I’ll try. Alright, right after this mean Gini, it’s it’s important for you to stay in your lane. Just stay. Why are you always trying to tell me how to do what I do here on my end? Just let me do my thing.

Gini Dietrich 

There’s so many things going through my head right now. And I’m trying very hard to use my Filter, Filter, Filter, Filter, Filter Filter.

Chip Griffin 

That’d be a first so yeah,

Gini Dietrich 

I know. But you know, I just did a six hour virtual media tour, some tired so I’m filtering. Okay.

Chip Griffin 

Yeah, that’s that’s probably a good idea. Because, you know, as you know, I hate to edit. So you do it hates edit? Yeah, yeah. So whatever you say, it’s go, it’s going out.

Gini Dietrich 

Maybe I should change my mind. No Filter.

Chip Griffin 

Well, while you’re thinking about your filter, I’ll tell listeners what we’re actually talking about today, because we’re not really going to talk about keeping you telling you how to do your job. Yeah, yes. Yeah. Yeah. Cuz nobody keeps Genie in a box or a corner or whatever that thing was, Oh, boy. Yeah. Little pop culture there from 40 years ago. But okay. I’m sure our younger listeners will get it. Anyway. So this is, you know, speaking of aged people, we’re going to talk about David C. Becker. No, I’m just kidding, David. So when you hear this?

Gini Dietrich 

I did not agree to agree to that.

Chip Griffin 

No, David, we love you. We’re just we were just having a little bit of fun. I had to think of a way to take myself out. And well, you’re next in the line of fire. So anyway, all right. But you shared David or David C. Baker shared an excellent tweet. That has a good topic for discussion today, which is, and so let me explain what he shared. He shared a post from Henry Innes, who was himself sharing some emails that Tim Cook had sent back, I guess about a decade or so ago. And it was talking about Apple’s ad agency. And so the way that Henry Innes paraphrases it in his tweets is the client, Apple wants an ad campaign, the ad agency wants to talk about transforming their business. Instead, agencies aren’t in business transformation or ideas. They’re in AD production. And so David C. Baker retweeted this along with the original email and said, You all need to read this, sometimes you just need to do your job, and not get all uppity. And so this is a great topic for a discussion, because certainly on this show, we talk a lot about the importance of agencies not being just order takers, and and trying to understand more about the client’s business and where they fit in and all that. And I think that that some agencies may not see where that line is between how to be not an order taker, and also still do what it is that you’re being hired to do. Yeah,

Gini Dietrich 

it’s, first of all, I think it’s a little bit challenging, because we do talk about things like not being an order taker and having a process and things like that. But you also have to be flexible. So, you know, we’ve talked about the fact that my agency has a two day strategic planning process. And we do that. I mean, certainly a strategic plan comes out of it. But we don’t do it for the strategic Strategic Plan piece of it. We do that to get really deep, with our clients really fast, and to build trust with the executive leadership team in a way that gets us off the ground and started off the ground and running really quickly. Because you spend two days with them. And you ask really smart questions, and you get to know you know them in the business and what their goals and aspirations are, and all that. Certainly the end result is a plan. But I’ve had people say prospects say to me, this is great, but we just went through this with a another company. And we’re not we don’t want to pay for a strategic planning process again. So can you use what’s there? And usually we say yes, now, we may still require a two day something, you know, to get out of it what we want. But I think that the point is that you have to be flexible to what the prospect wants or needs. Because you can’t you can’t just say like, Well, I’m sorry, you just paid for our strategic planning process, but that’s our process. If you want the business, if you don’t want the business, that’s a different thing, but

Chip Griffin 

right, and you have to be clear about what it is that you do in for your clients and set those expectations up front, you know, don’t don’t come in as an ad agency, for example, and then come and then you know, sit down at meetings. Okay, well, you know, we want to talk about out, you know how you do your production line or something like that, right? I mean, if you want a if you want to be a business consultant, great do that, but don’t masquerade as an ad agency that that is really doing business consulting or vice versa. Yeah, I

Gini Dietrich 

think that’s a really good point. Because that was part of the email it was it talked about they, they went to their agency and said, We’re launching this, we have this, we want this ad campaign, this is what we want. The agency was like, great. We want to talk about your business, and why it’s being more poorly run and how we can help you transform it. And they were like, just wanted to have

Chip Griffin 

what? Right, right. And in fact that the the email specifically says, instead of getting charged up to do great work on an iPhone campaign for us, they came back and asked to be able to talk to us about how much apple needs to change as a company, corporate responsibility, greed, slash margin channel strategies, sales, etc. I, you know, I can’t even imagine doing that. Right. I mean, even even with clients that I have had a great long term relationship with, I can’t imagine coming in and saying, Okay, well, instead of this, let’s talk about that. Right? I do think that you need to be willing to question what the client is asking you to do, so that you understand if what you’re doing is actually going to help them achieve their results. Right. So that is, in no way, am I saying that you should simply take orders and charge forward with exactly what the client has asked. But if the client is asking you for an ad campaign to launch the new iPhone, keep the discussion focused around that. Understand how the ad is fitting into that, and whether this is the right ad, the right campaign, all of those things? Absolutely. That is within your wheelhouse, that is within the remit, that, you know whether whether the client believes it or not, they have given you and so you should not agree to do work that is not going to achieve their business objective. But saying, you know, you want us to promote the iPhone, we really think we should be talking about corporate social responsibility that’s taking you into a whole different place. And it it’s it’s the kind of thing that that will tend to irritate clients very quickly. And it’s okay for you to note to them, perhaps we’re doing this, you know, we have noticed this, we think that you should be looking at this, whether you get it yourself or you know, we can talk to you about it, because we have experience doing ads on CSR, whatever, fine. Right, but don’t try to pivot the whole conversation, flag it and and focus on what it is that you’ve actually been asked to do.

Gini Dietrich 

Yeah, I would agree with that. And I think I’ve mentioned here before that I’m serving as the interim chief marketing officer for client right now. And being on the other side of the agency world is fascinating, because, and I’ve learned things that we we do or have done that. I’m like, oh, that doesn’t work at all, for the client, like, even just the way that you like, you think you’re really clear about the proposal and the financial structure and like all of those kinds of things, and you send it across and they’re like, I don’t understand it. We’re working with an agency right now that they keep sending us revised cost estimates. And I’m like, I don’t understand what you’re telling me because they’ll have the original price. And then they cross it off and put a new price and then cross that off and put a new price. And I’m like, I don’t I don’t understand, like, how much does it cost? I just want to know how much it costs. And what I get. That’s it?

Chip Griffin 

Yes. Right? Well, it is I think it’s hugely valuable if you’re running an agency to have had some of that client side experience so that you can see how this reads. I mean, I know a lot of the practices that I had when I was running my own agencies was informed by the relationships I had with agencies that I work with. And in fact, even while I owned my own agency, I also had another business where I was hiring agencies. So I you know, I’ve seen both sides of this. And you can really figure out some of those things that are just irritating. Like in the earliest days, when I first started my agency, one of the first decisions I had in the late 90s Was I was not going to charge you for faxes or photocopies earning that kind of stuff. Because on the client side, I hated getting those damn invoices every month where it you know, itemized how many pages of faxes had been sent, right. And for you kids out there faxes, pieces of paper that printed out of your printer automatically, basically anyway. Google, I’m sure we’re sure I’m sure YouTube has some video for it. But yeah, but people used to charge you like $1 or $2 per page, which was crazy because it didn’t cost them that much to actually send it. Yeah, so So those little things but but as you point out, there are some of the bigger picture things strategically like how you present pricing and how you present your statement of work, that you will change if you’ve been on the receiving end of them, because you understand how it’s being viewed and you need to be thinking About that, as an agency, how is your client perceiving everything that you’re saying and doing, and when you start going way outside your lane, in your communications with them know that that is a red flag for most clients?

Gini Dietrich 

Yes. And I will also add that on the client side, there are many times, especially right now, where you’re in the middle of something, and you need extra arms and legs. And we have had conversations internally with on the client side of, of bringing in an agency, and everybody’s pushing back and me and saying, We can’t bring in an agency right now, because we’re in the middle of this campaign, and they’re gonna want to change everything. And it’s like, huh, you’re right, like an agency is not going to come in and not want to present their own ideas on something. So you have all of these missed opportunities. from an agency perspective, if you don’t listen to what the prospect wants and needs at that particular time, be willing to be flexible and nimble and work with them or not, if they’re not a great fit, that’s, that’s fine, too. And if that happens, there are probably going to be additional opportunities. But if you if they’re in a if the client’s in the middle of a campaign, and they say we really just need somebody to help us execute this, and you come in and go, great, but we think we should do this, this, this and this, you’re not going to get hired, you’re just not.

Chip Griffin 

Right. And, and, importantly, don’t go in under false pretenses. Don’t say, of course, we can just be your arms and legs, it’s not a problem for us just to execute. And just in your mind, say, we’re really just getting in the door. And as soon as we get in there, then we’ll start rooting around and do what we really want to do not mean that because I’ve had that happen to I mean, on the client side, I have hired agencies, I was clear, I’m looking for on this, I’m looking just for arms and legs, I just, I need more bandwidth than I have. But you know, we’ve already got the strategy in place, and it really is just executing on it. And and I’ve had agencies come in and try to then say, well, you know, I know we said we could just do this, but really, we need to do this in order to be successful. Well, then why didn’t you tell me that before I hired you, I wouldn’t hire you. Right away gone a different direction. Right. And so, and unfortunately, there is I mean, we’ve talked about it before, there is this mentality amongst agencies that that you just need to say yes to whatever’s coming in the door, because it’s revenue. And so you contort yourself, so that you look like whatever the client is asking for, whether that’s arms and legs, whether that’s someone who can produce an ad, or someone who can do a strategy or whatever, you need to be honest with yourself first, and then with the prospect about what you really can do, and what a successful engagement really looks like. And if it’s not a fit, walk away.

Gini Dietrich 

Yeah, because there, I mean, we’ve had this conversation, too, there are red flags, you will see red flags. But I think the biggest challenge, and certainly one of the biggest frustrations I’m having with on the agency side of things is they don’t listen. They think they know everything. They they’re not part of the daily conversations, they don’t understand the goals. Like you can say we’re trying to achieve X, Y, and Z. And they think you say A, B and C. So like we are we have a situation right now where we had a bunch of work done. And we have to for a website launch, we have to have everything by December 1. And the agency came back and said, you know, we really think that you should drip this out. And we get that you want it for the website launch. But and we were like we needed for the – just give us this stupid content. But it’s they all everybody. And certainly everybody has their own opinions. And everybody has their own way of doing things in their own process. And you should for sure, do that. But you also have to listen to what the prospect or the client really needs. And whether or not you can fit into that.

Chip Griffin 

Yeah, absolutely. And I’ve got no issue with an agency saying, hey, you know, have you thought about, you know, dripping this out instead of going all at once? Fine. I mean, if you’ve got an idea, by all means, share it, don’t sit there, right there after the fact say, Well, you know, I was gonna suggest this, but I didn’t mean that’s, that’s even worse, right? Just keep your mouth shot. If you didn’t actually suggest it in advance. There’s no need to say you would have. But But once you’ve made the suggestion, if it’s been dismissed, move on. Right. Right. Don’t don’t continue to bring it up, which is a mistake that, you know, agencies certainly make. I’ve had employees in the past who have made that mistake, you know, by all means, let’s have discussions around things that you think should be different. But once we’ve resolved it, we’ve resolved it and move on. And, and I think, you know, it’s difficult here because you don’t I don’t want agencies to feel like they, they need to just live within a very narrow remit and not be willing to make suggestions in other areas or points. things out, right? So it’s really just understanding how far you can go and how far you can or should push. And, you know, I know one of the things that came up in the thread that David C Baker, you know, ended up creating by tweeting about this was some discussion about, you know, the fact that the tweet he retweeted had said, they’re not in business transformation, they’re in AD production and production. Like, I think, I mean, production is, I mean, we could get into definitional debates until the sun comes down, or goes down. But the, the, the reality is that people use different terminology. And and I don’t think that the person who was sharing this meant add production in the literal, like, produce the AdSense. And so So I think you need to understand, you know, what’s immediately adjacent to the work that you’re doing as well. And the closer it is to that core? The more fair game it is for the conversation, but when you start going way out into left field, that’s where problems start to arise, typically.

Gini Dietrich 

Yeah, I mean, yes, to be asked for an ad campaign. And to come back with, we need to help you, you need to do corporate sources, social responsibility, and you’re too greedy. And like your sales needs help. That’s you completely missed the point.

Chip Griffin 

Right? Well, you also have the problem that, you know, I’ve seen cases where, you know, agencies go well beyond their expertise. So it’s also, you know, you have to be coming from a position of authority. So if you’re going to venture outside of your lane, make sure you can back it up, back it up, based on your personal experience, back it up based on what your agency has done, you got to have something to lay the foundation for it. You can’t simply say, I think I feel right, it has to be based on, on on the fact that you actually know what you’re talking about. Right. So. So when I was an agency, and I was doing work with clients, you know, I would sometimes talk to them about general business operational issues. But I came from the experience of someone who ran my own benefits that were similar to some of the ones like that. So so it was, it was not me saying, you know, just opining on, you know, how health insurance should work, right? Because that’s not very I have any expertise in right. But it was talking about things that I had personal experience in that I thought might be beneficial to the conversation. Yeah, but if they signaled, hey, you know, that’s cool. I don’t want to talk about that. Okay, cool. Well, then we will talk about what you’ve actually hired my agency for? And I’m good with that.

Gini Dietrich 

Yeah, and I agree with that. I think that, especially for agency owners, we get in a position with our clients where we are talking business, because we’re both business owners in many cases, right, or we’ve both left teams or whatever happens to be. So I think those opportunities come up just because there’s similar experiences and some other capabilities and all those kinds of things. But if I, as a, as a digital communications firm owner went in and said, Oh, I can help you restructure your sales team? No, I can’t. Right. I don’t know anything about that.

Chip Griffin 

Right. And and I think the the other piece of this is that agencies have gotten so hung up in recent years on the notion that they have to be into strategy in order to be profitable. Right. And so, so now they all are walking in the door thinking I need to think big thoughts. There needs to be a strategy around the work that you’re doing.

It doesn’t take

Chip Griffin 

Well, I mean, you see this right. I mean, that Yeah. You know, I want to be paid to think well, okay, cool. But at the end of the day, most clients aren’t gonna pay you just to think, no, they kind of want some deliverables, too. And so, so to the extent that you’re providing strategy, it needs to be layered on top of integrated within all of the other work that you’re doing it, if you take the strategy, and you put it in its whole in a whole different area. And you try to focus on that and say, Yeah, sure, we can do the implementation too. That’s a whole different kind of business, you’re running. And it can be successful. There are businesses out there agencies that are primarily strategic and do very little on the execution side. But don’t The problem is when you come in the door, with the client expecting one thing, and then you’re trying to push the other. So if all you want to do is strategy, if you want nothing to do with execution. Cool. Say that upfront. I mean, it’s it’s like, again, going back to David C. Baker in his own business, he talks about the fact that he engages with agencies, once or you know, primarily as a project to talk about their positioning and things like that. He’s not, how does he put it? I don’t want to be an occupying force, I think is the way that that he puts it. And so he doesn’t do some of that, that integration implementation type work that some of the rest of us do, and that’s fine. He makes that clear from the get go. He doesn’t set up the expectation that he will continue to work with you on his focus is here The plan, you know, we can revisit this, you know, every year, two years, whatever and figure out, you know how you need to adjust. But I’m not going to be there on a day to day basis. If you’re an agency and you say, I’m willing to be arms and legs, and you only want to talk about strategy, you only want to talk about CSR. That’s a problem.

Gini Dietrich 

It’s a big problem. Yeah. Yes. And I think, in some cases, agencies, owners have gotten to the extreme. I mean, the Apple exam is a great example of that. It’s a great example of that. And some of the things that I’ve experienced experiencing as a quote unquote, client, I’m like, but I will say that I think you’re right. If you have the opportunity, as an agency owner to work inside an organization, and you have not done that yet, this is the first time I’ve ever done it. I’ve never worked inside an organization. I’ve always worked for agencies. It’s fascinating, because you’re like, Oh, I took that, and it doesn’t make any sense. It makes no sense. And then you as the agency owner, you’re frustrated, because you’re like, What do you mean, it doesn’t make sense, and it’s your the wires are completely crossed. So it has been interesting from that perspective for me, just because I do see many of the habits, I think that many agency owners have, that we all tend to have and right don’t work for the client, they work, how much does it cost? What do I get?

Chip Griffin 

Right? I mean, it really is that simple. And yes, it’s it is amazing how much more complicated. Some folks make it. And and at the end of the day, and part of this comes from the the whole, this whole mantra that you know how, you know, we need to get away from selling time as agencies, guess what clients are buying time, right? At the end of the day, they are buying your arms and legs, they are buying deliverables. They are not buying pie in the sky. Nope. And, and their expectation is to know what they’re actually getting. Yep. And and if you’re producing results, then you can charge premium prices. And if you’re not producing results, you’re not going to last very long. So there’s that. Amen. So,

Gini Dietrich 

yes, and that to David C. Baker, pay attention to that. Do the job that you’re asked to do within reason. And you will win

Chip Griffin 

or walk away from the business if it’s not a walk walk away, right? Yes. Yes, there’s no there’s there’s nothing wrong with that. Nothing wrong with that. And with that, we will walk away from this episode because we’re gonna stay within our lane of a 30 minute or less podcast. So with that, I’m Chip Griffin,

Gini Dietrich 

and I’m Gini Dietrich,

Chip Griffin 

and it depends

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