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Should your small agency hire senior-level pros?

Hiring seasoned professionals sounds like it will solve a lot of headaches you have as an agency owner. But will it?

In this episode, Chip and Gini discuss the importance of balancing senior and junior hires in agencies, highlighting the pros and cons of primarily staffing with senior level talent.

They emphasize the need for clear expectations, relevant experience, and the importance of understanding what each hire truly needs to do before you commit to senior level hires.

Key takeaways

  • Chip Griffin: “Part of the challenge is because it’s expensive, it means that you also need to be expensive to your clients. So if you’re going to staff with high level, high priced people, that’s okay. As long as you can command the appropriate rates.”
  • Gini Dietrich: “When you have senior level employees, not only do you have to pay them what they would command anywhere else, but you have to pay yourself the same or more than they’re getting.”
  • Chip Griffin: “If you can’t let go, please, please do not waste your money on a senior hire because the last thing you want is a senior hire that you don’t even allow to work at a senior level because you felt compelled to micromanage them.”
  • Gini Dietrich: “It’s going to evolve, it’s going to change, as you grow, as your business matures, so be okay with that fluidity.”

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 think we need to go out and hire some senior citizens. They’ll just, they’ll do this podcast for us.

Gini Dietrich: Okay.

Chip Griffin: I would say right after this, but we don’t do that, that little Diddy music here anymore because we just have it before anyway, but no, not senior citizens, but we are, we are going to talk about seniors.

And that’s senior hires and whether you’re professional, whether you should hire and staff your agency with primarily senior level talent. And I know this is something that’s very popular amongst some small agencies, particularly as they’re getting started. Maybe they’re getting started with a couple of partners with real experience.

And so they’re, you know, it’s all senior on that basis. It might be that as you hire, you want to hire people who are like you or closer to you and experience so that you can offer that same, that same level of service to your clients by having people who have that level of experience. And there are certainly some pros to that, but there are also some significant cons that you need to think of before you have an agency that is staffed almost entirely by seniors or completely by seniors.

Gini Dietrich: Yeah, I mean, when I, as I’ve grown my agency, one of the things I’ve looked at is doing that as well, and one of the pros for me is, you know, it takes a lot to coach and mentor a young professional, and we, you know, we’ve been virtual for a very long time, long before even the pandemic, and it’s really hard, it’s really challenging to bring in some, a young professional in that environment as well, so I’ve looked at the pros and cons For my own agency, it’s expensive, really expensive, and you may not get the same return that you do with some younger professionals, but in the end, what I have found is a good mix is usually for us the right place to be.

Chip Griffin: Yeah. And, and as always, it depends, right. And there, you know, there are, there are models that work and certainly there are some, boutique consulting firms that have only senior level people and they can make a very good living. But part of the challenge is because it’s expensive, it means that you also need to be expensive to your clients.

Yeah. And so, so if you’re going to staff with high level, high priced people, that’s okay. As long as you can command the appropriate rates. from your clients, which, which typically means you’re doing a higher level of service for them. You are primarily providing strategic and not doing the day to day of, of issuing press releases and doing media relations and all of those kinds of things that become really challenging to do economically if everybody is a senior.

Gini Dietrich: Yeah, and you, you will find that most people with several years of experience don’t want to do that work anymore, right? I mean, they spent their, the first parts of their careers doing that. So asking them to do media relations or write news releases or even manage communities and social media is not where they want to spend their time.

They want to spend their time on the higher level stuff. So you have to figure out if that’s the kind of agency that you have, or if you’re doing, if your agency is all about being extra arms and legs for clients and doing the execution. Execution of campaigns that you have to have a good mix of different levels of experience in there.

Chip Griffin: Well, I think that I, I think that mix is so important because there are, there are kinds of work that you need to do that as you point out, the seniors don’t want to do. And that are also not economical. And so if you’ve got a good mix, you can still offer that high level of service. I think the biggest challenge is as you’re getting started in the early stages, when you’re two, three, four employees, how do you balance this out?

Because it’s really challenging at that point. If you want to have more seniors than just yourself. How do you price it effectively for it to make sense? And so, you know, I always encourage folks to model things out and say, okay, well, if this is how I was staffed and this is how we were doing work, you know, what would be my actual cost to service this client?

And can I do it profitably or not? Because. And I see this all the time with agencies who have partners, right? If you, if you start an agency with more than one owner, it’s always challenging because that means from revenue level, the first dollar, you now have two mouths, two expensive mouths to feed,

and it’s hard enough getting started in a business solo.

Much harder when you’ve got two or three or more all at once. And so you need to think through and map it out. How does this work? How do we price to make this work? Can we actually sell that much revenue in order to be successful?

Gini Dietrich: Yeah. And I think that one of the things that agency owners tend to do.

And we’ve talked about this ad nauseum, but we tend to say, Oh, well, my time is free, or I don’t have to pay myself, you know, a living salary. I’ll get it on the back end. And when you have senior level employees. Not only do you have to pay them what they would get command anywhere else, but you have to pay yourself the same or more than they’re getting.

So it becomes pretty expensive, but to your point, if you map it out and say, okay, this is how we’re going to generate revenue to cover our expenses, which is, that’s what they are is expenses, yourself included. It can be done for sure.

Chip Griffin: Yeah. And I think part of it is also trying to sit down and say, okay, do I really need this senior level?

I mean, I think sometimes we do it out of comfort because we like to work with smarter, more experienced people because we feel like that’s going to be easier to manage. I would dispute that. I think some very senior employees are actually more difficult to manage than juniors. It’s just, it’s different kinds of management, but I mean, I’ve worked with plenty of senior folks who are just really tough, from a manager perspective, because they come in with preconceived notions of everything and a way of doing things that is not yours. And it’s really hard. I mean, if I go in somewhere as an employee today, it’s going to be really hard to convince me to do things differently than I’ve done them for the last 30 years.

Gini Dietrich: Absolutely.

Chip Griffin: Yeah. And so if you bring in someone with 10 or 20 years of experience, they’re going to, you know, Be the same way in all likelihood. And so you’re going to have to, to really shape them into what you want. And so you need to ask yourself, do I really need this? Or is it just out of comfort or the concept that I’m going for here?

And so that really comes down to understanding and you should do this with every new hire. What do I actually need them to do? What value do I need to get from them? Because I think a lot of times, if you go through that exercise, you’ll find that only a very, very small percentage of what they’re doing would actually benefit from their, their, that senior level of experience.

And if it’s only 10 percent of their time requires that, that may not be the best for your agency to hire at that level.

Gini Dietrich: And one of the things we talked about last week is letting it go and giving up control. And if you’re not yet to that. position And you still are having a hard time letting it go and giving up control You’re going to have a lot harder time with a senior level employee who is who comes in. They won’t last long Because if you’re micromanaging them or you are trying to control the work that they do Or to your point trying to make them do things the way that you want them done When they’ve spent 20 or 30 years doing it their way like those things are going to create conflict pretty fast. O you also have to take a really good inward look and say, okay, am I a micromanager?

Do I like to have control? Am I unwilling to give it up and to let it go? And if the answer to those things is yes, then a senior level employee is not the right fit for you. Now, You can listen to last week’s episode to, to, to learn why all of those things should change, but if that’s where you are right now in your, in your journey, do not bring in a senior level employee because it will create all sorts of animosity.

Chip Griffin: Yeah. I mean, if you can’t let go, please, please do not waste your money on a senior hire because the last thing you want is a senior hire that you don’t even allow to work at a senior level because you felt compelled to micromanage them because now you’ve gotten the worst of both worlds. You’re spending too much and you’re not actually helping yourself.

So

Gini Dietrich: yes,

Chip Griffin: absolutely. Listen to last week’s episode, understand that you need to let it go. And that has to be part of the equation before you even think about it. But I think even more than that, you know, you need to think about. If the person is not going to be doing a lot of senior level work, can you come in and just, you know, sprinkle the magic dust that I like to talk about as an agency owner?

And that is sufficient because you can get everything else off of your plate with say a mid level hire or even a more junior high as I think everybody knows, I don’t endorse Most small agencies hiring true junior entry level type employees. I think that’s a mistake, but you can get someone with two or three years of experience.

Who’s had the business potty training as I like to call it. So you don’t have to go through that.

Gini Dietrich: The business potty training.

Chip Griffin: I want potty trained employees as a small agency. I don’t want to have to spend time explaining to you. How do you, you know, what is Zoom Etiquette? How do you, what is the basics of press release writing or, you know, You know, how do you judge what to post on, you know, social media, those kinds, let’s someone else deal with all of that, but I can still get someone in with two or three years of experience for a lot less than someone with 10 or 15.

Absolutely. And so, so you really need to be clear with yourself. Do I really need somebody with that level of experience before you commit to spending that kind of money?

Gini Dietrich: Yeah. I mean, just like anything else and anything else that we talk about, you have to, you have to outline the pros and the cons. What are the pros?

What are the cons? And where is my agency in its Maturity right now because i’ve been through this as well. I I went through the whole process of hiring junior level employees and coaching them and mentoring and doing all those things which was fun, and I went through the process of hiring only senior level employees and that also was fun so you have to figure out what works for you in the moment and it’s going to change. It’s going to evolve It’s going to change, you know as you grow as your business matures, so be okay with that fluidity as well. Understand what works right now may not work in a year or five years from now and that’s okay.

That’s totally okay.

Chip Griffin: I love that you note that it will change over time. In fact, my view is that every hire changes your next hire. So it’s why I always advise against whether you’re in a large organization within a team hiring more than one person at a time or your small agency hiring more than one person at a time.

Every time you hire one individual, it changes the entire team dynamic and it changes what in all likelihood you need in that next hire.

Gini Dietrich: Great point.

Chip Griffin: And so it is every single time you bring that new person in the door, it’s going to change what you need next. And you don’t really know how. Because until you see how the team dynamic evolves and you really understand what that person has, because I mean, let’s face it, when you hire somebody, it’s based off of a couple of hours of conversation, right?

At most, at most.

Gini Dietrich: At most, correct.

Chip Griffin: You know, very little about that person that you’re hiring. And so until they actually come in, you don’t really know what you have. You got a general idea based on their experience and the conversations you’ve had, but you don’t really know. And you might find, geez, they’re really good at this.

And so Now that’s a problem I don’t have that I thought I did, but they’re weak in some other area that I need to shore up the next time I hire. So be prepared for things to change. And I think that it’s a helpful exercise to reflect and not just assume, okay, well, my next hire is this. I, I was planning on this hire today and another hire this summer, and this is what they look like.

And just sticking with that plan blindly. You need to update it as things evolve in your business.

Gini Dietrich: Yeah, and I would say one of the things too, one of the challenges I’ve had is I, you know, it’s on the Spin Sucks side, I would call it more of a media company than an agency. And as we were building that and creating content that would become productized, I hired somebody who had done that for a magazine.

And so I thought it would be an easy transition for him to go from one to the other. And it didn’t work. It didn’t work. We ended up hating one another. It was, it was a disaster. And, you know, hindsight, of course, 20/20, but reflecting back on that, from my perspective, I expected him to come in and take his experience and translate it directly and help me grow that side of the business.

From his perspective, he had never done that before. He’d always worked for a magazine that had, you know, a publishing side and advertising and all of the resources he needed to be able to do the right kinds of editorial, which we didn’t have because we were just starting out. and so there was a lot of things that got lost in the communication of it.

And he also wanted to be bonused on certain milestones that we never met because they didn’t. It didn’t translate the same way. And I think that I wasn’t mature enough in the, in my business growth and he didn’t understand what it was like on that sort of the other side of things. So you, but same thing we had a really, we’d had a few really great conversations.

We were on the same path, like from a vision perspective, we just couldn’t make the execution of it work. So like, you have to understand that if you’re going to bring in somebody with experience and they, they have experience in something really specific like that, it may not translate the same way. So you have to

you have to kind of figure all those pieces out and sometimes it is trial and error, which sucks. Sometimes that’s the way to do it too.

Chip Griffin: Well, this idea of understanding the kind of experience they have is so important. Because oftentimes I see small agencies wanting to hire someone in and say, okay, you know, they’ve got this, this great senior level of experience with an Edelman or a large agency of some kind.

And then you bring them in. And so junior hires, it’s less of an issue what kind of organization they’ve come from, but you can learn a little bit about it, but they’re still early enough on that, you know, and they were junior enough that that you probably have room to work. But if you hire someone with senior level experience, they’re going to be very influenced by where they’ve come from, whether that’s a large agency or client side or something like that.

And you really, really want to make sure that if you’re hiring senior people for your agency, they have relevant experience in a small organization like yours. Because a senior level role in a small agency is very different from a senior level role in a large agency or on the client side or something like that, where you’ve got larger teams.

And so you’re not responsible for the same kind of stuff. Yeah. That you’ve got to do if you’re on a team of five or 10 or 15. Yeah. And so understanding that, I mean, that, that can be a huge cultural disconnect. If you bring in somebody who is used to having people who help them with everything. Right. And now all of a sudden they have the title.

It sounds good. They’re chief operating officer, they’re executive vice president, they’re something like that. And yet they are also having to, you know, wash the dishes or whatever, you know? I mean, that’s. Right. Yeah. But that’s the reality of a small agency, right? Everybody has to do a little bit of everything.

Gini Dietrich: Right, right. I mean, it goes back to what we were talking about earlier. Somebody at that level is typically not going to want to write the news releases and manage the social media, right? They’re going to want to do really strategic stuff. And in some cases, to your point, they’re accustomed to having teams of people, not one or two people, but teams of people who are doing the work underneath them.

So they are able to do strategic work where doing strategic work in your agency may be, may look differently. So, you know, I have a really good friend who works for one of the big agencies and all he does is crisis work. And he has enough experience that literally what they do is they send him in when there’s a crisis.

On the day of, and he says, this is what you need to do. Boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom. And then he leaves to go to the next, and the team comes in to execute. So if you hire somebody like that in your agency, , it’s not gonna work because there’s no, like, you can’t. There’s no infrastructure to support someone like that in the, in the way that they’ve become accustomed to.

Chip Griffin: Right. And I think it’s, it’s so important that, I mean, with all new hires, but particularly at the senior level that you have expectations set clearly during the interview process. Yes. And so if there are parts of the job that are going to suck, make sure the potential new hire knows that before day one,

because it doesn’t do you any good to convince them to join.

And then they find out, Oh, I don’t have anybody to boss around. I don’t have anybody to help me with this or that. It’s all on me. Make sure they know that. And so I think a really helpful exercise in trying to figure out both what you need, as well as being able to set the expectation is to map out a 40 hour work week for your potential new hire.

How do you see them actually spending time? I mean, that helps you understand what you really need and that this person is a real fit, but it allows you to share with that new hire. Here’s what your week might look like. And if it’s, if it’s going to be, you know, eight or 10 hours of press release writing and database updating, tell them that.

Gini Dietrich: Yeah.

Chip Griffin: They may still say yes to something that they shouldn’t, but at least you did it in a way that you allowed them to have their eyes open and that they didn’t walk in on day one and think, oh, this is a total shocker to me.

Gini Dietrich: That’s such great advice in general. Anytime you hire somebody, map out what 40 hours will look like so that you understand what you’re asking them to do and they understand what they’re walking into.

That’s great advice no matter who you’re hiring. Such good advice.

Chip Griffin: And that helps you figure out is this what I really need? Because a lot of times you think, I mean, I cannot tell you the number of times I’ve talked with agency owners who tell me that, you know, I need to hire, you know, someone to, to just, you know, do project management or operations or that kind of stuff.

In fact, almost every agency owner I talk with says that that’s, that’s the first hire I need to get. The reality is there’s probably not that much truly operational. It depends on the business. There are agencies that do require it, but the vast majority don’t really have 40 hours a week of that. Right.

So, so what are you going to fill the rest of their time with? And when you’re thinking about senior hires is if only four hours of their 40 is truly senior level advising clients and relationship and that kind of stuff. Is that what you really need? Or could you do those four hours and find someone else to fill the other 36?

Gini Dietrich: That’s right.

Chip Griffin: Who’s at a more junior, more affordable level.

Gini Dietrich: And then you’re happier so much.

Chip Griffin: Right? Because it’s, I mean, the end result is what matters here, right? It’s not, it’s not some title on a piece of paper or what, you know, some expert like one of us tells you to do. I mean, by all means, if, if, you know, if we’re wrong for your agency and you need all senior hires and that’s really what works great, do it.

We’re not telling you not to, yes.

We’re just telling you think really hard before you do that, because more often than not, it becomes more difficult if you have very senior, very expensive mouths to feed on a regular basis.

Gini Dietrich: Yes. Yes, indeed.

Chip Griffin: With that, I think it’s time for me to go get some lunch and feed this mouth. So, 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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