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Stop trying to be like other agencies

It can be very tempting to say, “I want my agency to be just like [fill in the blank].”

We all have companies and entrepreneurs that we look up to, but that doesn’t mean that we should aspire to be just like them.

In this episode, Chip and Gini explain why you should be yourself and chart a course that works for you. Trying to copy someone else’s model is more likely to lead to frustration and disappointment rather than success.

Key takeaways

  • Gini Dietrich: “I came from this big global agency. And you think you’re going to make lots of money because all the partners make lots of money. So if you’re the founder, then you’ll make even more money. And you have this delusion of grandeur, I think, that isn’t really accessible to most of us.”
  • Chip Griffin: “Don’t say, I’m going to transform my business into being one like this. Take lessons, but don’t try to copy someone else.”
  • Gini Dietrich: “We don’t have this big fancy office anymore. But we’re far more successful because I’m doing what I love, which translates to my team is doing what they love.”
  • Chip Griffin: “If you don’t have an ego, having a business is probably not right for you. And if you’re going to have a business, it ought to be serving you, not the other way around.”

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 should just be ourselves today.

Gini Dietrich: I think that’s a great idea.

Chip Griffin: Right after this.

Actually, on second thought, maybe I want to be just like you, Gini. When I grow up, I want to be Gini Dietrich. You think that’ll work for me?

Gini Dietrich: Absolutely. You might have to grow some hair.

Chip Griffin: Wow. Oh wow. Wow. I mean, just take the baseball bat right to the head to get this episode started. Shall we? Unbelievable.

Gini Dietrich: That was good. That was good. I was quick on that one.

Chip Griffin: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Well, in all seriousness, that is what we’re gonna talk about today. Well, not me trying to become Gini, because that’s, like, No. For many reasons, not just the hair. A lot of agencies that I’ve talked to over the years dream of becoming just like…

Gini Dietrich: Sure.

Chip Griffin: And after the “just like,” it might be Fleishman. Edelman. It might be one of the big ad agencies.

It might be, Oh, one of my favorites that I hear a lot and I’ve heard from a number of agencies is McKinsey. They love to be McKinsey. I don’t think anybody really knows what McKinsey does, but…

Gini Dietrich: There’s not really any marketing or communications in McKinsey, but, Okay.

Chip Griffin: Well, I mean all, all of the management consulting businesses have gotten into the marketing communications space in some fashion now because they wanna be just like us.

Gini Dietrich: Right. Fair.

Chip Griffin: Because they’ll just, I mean, their business model is they’ll take money from the big boys, however they’re willing to give it. And that works for them. It doesn’t work for everybody though.

Gini Dietrich: Correct.

Chip Griffin: And I just wish that people would stop trying to build someone else’s business and they would focus on building their own.

Gini Dietrich: Yeah. I think it’s a, I mean, I made that mistake, right? I came from Fleishman Hillard and I thought that in, in building a business and building an agency, that I had to build an agency just like them, that had, you know, several departments and lots of layers and partners and all of that. And what I discovered through the process is that I didn’t want to build that kind of agency. That did not fit for me at all.

I did not like having lots and lots of employees. I didn’t like that I wasn’t doing the work anymore. I didn’t like all the HR issues that I was dealing with. I found that I would prefer to be able to do some of the work and also grow the business, which I wasn’t able to do when I had more than 40 employees.

It was, it was tough. And so I discovered very quickly that that was not the kind of agency I wanted to grow. But I did the same thing. Like I came from this big global agency and this is how they do things. And you’re gonna make lots of money because all the partners make lots of money. So if you’re the founder, then you’ll make even more money.

And you have this delusion of grandeur, I think, that isn’t really accessible to most of us.

Chip Griffin: Yeah. And it, it’s not to say that you can’t take lessons from what other people are doing, that you can’t observe.

Gini Dietrich: Absolutely.

Chip Griffin: And, we all do that, right? It’s, it’s how a lot of us who are parents now, we, we’ve looked to what our parents did and some of the things we replicate and some of the things we say will do the opposite of. Same thing with former bosses, you know, there are former bosses who say, I love how they did this, so I’m gonna adopt that.

I hated how they did that, so I’m not gonna – fine. Go ahead and observe all of these things that are going on in your space, in adjacent spaces. But don’t try to sit down and say, I’m going to transform my business into being one like this. And it’s something that I saw a lot when I was in the tech space years ago, where people would say, Well, you know, this is the Amazon of this, or this is the Facebook of that.

Stop, Stop. Take lessons, but don’t try to copy someone else.

Gini Dietrich: I mean, I think this is, if you want to make it even more simple, you started this out by saying, you want to become, you want to be more like me, which is a joke, of course, but I think many of us do that. It’s just human nature where we look at the neighbors, You always say, Don’t try to keep up with the Joneses, but we look at the neighbors and they go, Oh.

And you go, Oh, their garden is better than mine. Or Their house is bigger than mine, or they drive a better car than I do. Whatever happens to be. And I think we do that in our professional lives too, where we look at somebody and we go, Wow, I wonder how that person has become so successful. I want to be able to emulate some of that.

And so I think the lesson in that is that you really just need to be yourself. Because there’s nobody else like you. Right?

Chip Griffin: Exactly. Exactly. And part of the problem is in the agency space, we are sitting there and we’re looking at other agencies, but we’re only looking at what’s out there publicly from them, about them. And in the agency space almost nobody is a public company, so there’s no transparency. So, we’re, we’re simply making a judgment based on, you know, what’s the color of their house and is their lawn well kept? Right? Right. For, for all we know, it’s in complete disrepair inside and, you know, the pipes are leaking and I mean, we just, you don’t know.

And so, so trying to sit there and imagine what it must be like inside this business or that business, it’s going to send you down a road that you don’t really want to be on.

Gini Dietrich: I mean, a great example of that is I had, before the recession hit, I had a two and a half million dollar business. I had 40 employees. I had no, no business having that many employees on a two and a half million dollar business.

But I did. And for all intents and purposes, we looked like we were super successful. Lots of employees. Big fancy office in River North, in Chicago, downtown Chicago, you know, big clients, big name clients you would recognize. But we were like $750,000 in debt. And so everybody looked at, like from the outside, oh my gosh. They, she’s make, she’s got this big revenue, she’s got this big office and she has all the employees. But the truth of the matter is, we were broke. We were not making any money. And that’s not success at all.

Chip Griffin: Right. Well, and, it also comes down to, as I always like to say, the work that you’re doing. Are you satisfied with the work that you’re doing?

Because what it takes to be an Edelman or a Fleishman may not be the kind of work that you want to do.

Gini Dietrich: Correct.

Chip Griffin: And if you’re trying to build that kind of business, your role is gonna be substantially different than what it is today. That’s right. If that’s what you want, great, Go for it. I’m not, I’m not in any way saying that if what you really, really want is to be this other kind of business that you can’t do it. I’m just saying think really carefully before you do and understand everything that it means to go down that path. And you also have to remember, I mean, look back to what some of these businesses were when they got started.

Right. Most of these businesses were not what they are today when they got started. Even if you look at big companies like Amazon. Amazon was a bookstore. Correct. Selling paper books. Yes. Real old paper. They’re, I mean, they’re so many different things today, and some of it is what Jeff Bezos I think envisioned at the time.

Some of it isn’t. I mean, they make a ton of money off of technical infrastructure. Right. Selling cloud computing services. I’m fairly sure, I don’t know this for certain, but I’m fairly sure that that’s not what Jeff Bezos had in mind as a major driver of his profits when he got started.

Gini Dietrich: Well, even netflix, they started out as DVDs, right?

Mail and DVDs. Right. You would, Right. And so I think the, the lesson there is that certainly we evolve. And certainly we figure out what works for us. But I think you were making a point at the beginning of that, which is figure out what it is that you want. Because the larger your business gets, the less you get away from doing the work.

So if you went into business for yourself to do the work because you’re really good at it and you love it, try to maintain that in some fashion. If you went into business because you wanna build this huge conglomeration and you wanna sit at the top and deal with HR and finance and banks, bankers.

Then great, do that. For me, that’s not what I want to do. I have no desire to do that kind of work. So I have really taken my business and the recession, you know, crushing us like it did, gave me the opportunity to sort of figure things out differently. But I’ve taken the business so that I can do what I want to do, the work I want to do, and then have my team do the rest of it and be really happy with the business that I’ve built.

We don’t have 40 employees. We’re not, we don’t have this big fancy office anymore. But we’re far more successful because I’m doing what I love, which translates to my team is doing what they love.

Chip Griffin: Right. So, so let’s, let’s go there. So, and we, you know, we have spent, you know, eight or nine minutes now beating up on people for trying to be someone else.

So let’s be productive for them. How can, how can you advise an agency owner to do a better job of being themselves and building the business that they want as opposed to trying to be the X, Y, or Z.

Gini Dietrich: We’ve talked about this in several episodes, but it really is figuring out what it, what it is that you want. And what you want right now may change, right?

Life changes. You know, maybe your parents get sick or you have kids or whatever happens to be there. Things happen and things change, and so what you decide right now doesn’t have to be the end all, be all, it can change. But really sit, be honest with yourself and say what it is, What is it that I want to do every day?

What is it that’s going to keep me happy and not dread getting out of bed on Monday morning? Start there. I’ve talked about this before. Make your list. What am I? What is it that I’m doing that only I can do? No one else can do it. What am I doing that should be delegated and what am I doing that I absolutely despise?

I don’t want to do, I need to get it off my list no matter what. Do that four times a year. Because that’s – that exercise, just doing that exercise is going to help you understand what it is that you’re really good at, and that means that’s probably what you really love doing. And then focus on that and build your agency around you with the stuff you despise hating, and the stuff that you’re doing that you shouldn’t be doing.

Chip Griffin: Well, I think that’s a great point. You need to, even if you’ve had an agency for 10 or 15 years, take the time to, to almost ignore everything that you’ve built. And sit there and look at, at you and your role. Yep. And then start building out from there. It’s sort of like zero based budgeting, right?

Just like, you know, a lot of people will advocate that instead of taking last year’s budget and, you know, adding 3% to, you know, this line item because costs are going up. Start and pretend that there’s that, that you’ve got, you haven’t spent anything and, and build up from there. Do the same with, with your overall business strategy and start with yourself.

I know that for some of you, it’s going to feel uncomfortable because it sort of, it has this egotistical feel to it and all that, but that, that’s why you have the business.

Gini Dietrich: Right. Exactly.

Chip Griffin: If you don’t have an ego, having a business is probably not right for you. Yeah. And if you’re going to have a business, it ought to be serving you, not the other way around.

That’s right. And so if you think about it in, you know, as if it were an onion, you are at the core. And so then you build the layers out from there. So as you say, focus on what you are doing and get that right. Write your own job description first. Figure out what needs to be done and is not on your job description.

Those are the people you need to start surrounding yourself with. And it’s, I often see agency owners as they’re, they’re saying, Oh, well what, what should my next hire be at this stage? You know, I’ve got this much revenue or I’ve got this many clients, I’m like…time out. What do you want to get off of your plate?

Gini Dietrich: Right, Right.

Chip Griffin: Because the stuff that you can get off of your plate… first of all, it will increase your satisfaction. Yeah. Which is important because you’ll be more productive if you’re doing work that you actually enjoy doing. Right. But it also should be more profitable because probably the stuff you want to get off your plate is lower value than what you could be doing with your time.

That’s right. So if you can be happier and have more profitability, why wouldn’t you do that first?

Gini Dietrich: That’s a really good point. And I think… it certainly took me a long time to get there for my business just because I, I did the whole, I wanna be like Fleishman Hillard and I need to have a hundred employees, and we need to have big fancy offices and we need to be national, and then we need to go international.

And it took me a long time to figure out that, oh my gosh, I don’t have to work a hundred hours a week. I don’t have to be the one that fills in when people are sick or out on leave or taking vacation. I should have a team for that. I don’t have to be the one that’s, that’s stepping in when somebody needs help. I actually can build a team that functions that way that I delegate to, and that the work gets done.

Because you’re right. Clients don’t care if it’s you doing the work or if it’s your team doing the work as long as, as the work is getting done and it’s getting done well. So it took me a really long time to get there and it took me a really long time to figure out, oh my gosh, I’m actually happier if I’m working probably 50 hours a week and I get to have time to go play lunch duty at school, and I get to do pickup and drop off every day, and nobody’s like giving me a hard time about that. I’m really happy in that, in this situation. It took me a really long time to get there though, because I kept thinking that wasn’t success. And maybe in somebody else’s eyes that’s not success.

But for me that is. And that’s the point, is what, who cares what other people’s definition of success is? What is your definition of success? What is it that you want to do? And build your business around that.

Chip Griffin: Absolutely. And, and as you said before, that may change over time. Right. What your view of success is today is different than it was 10 years ago.

It’ll be different again in 10 years. Yes. And you know, and I think for all of us, it evolves whether we acknowledge it or not. So acknowledge it and adapt to your current view on things, your current circumstances, rather than trying to say, Okay, well this is, this is where I always said I was gonna go, so this is what I’m gonna do.

Right? Right. Where does that get you? Right? Nowhere. Now I’m also not saying that you shouldn’t… well, let me put it this way. If you want to be the next X, Y, or Z, ask yourself why. Because there’s something that’s drawing you to that. And so the, the motivation that’s drawing you to, that may be something that you can address in a different way.

And so you don’t necessarily, you know, have to be the next Fleishman or Edelman. There can – What is it about those that appeals to you? And also, keep in mind, these folks took a long time to get where they are today.

Gini Dietrich: Right. Generations.

Chip Griffin: Generations, literally generations. Right? And all sorts of things happened along the way that you don’t even know about or remember about or any of those kinds of things, right?

Because a lot of these businesses changed hands, had investors had – you know, got passed on or, I mean, so many things happened from where they were at the same time they were like you today to where they are today. Some of those things are good, some are bad, Who knows? But, but think about what is it that’s, that’s making you say, I want to be like Amazon.

I want to be like Edelman. And if you do that, that may help you figure out what are some of the, the levers that you can pull to improve your satisfaction with your current business without necessarily imitating someone else.

Gini Dietrich: Right. I think that’s really sound advice. And it’s sound advice for us personally and it’s sound advice for us professionally because we are all guilty of the, you know coveting what our neighbors have scenario. Right. We’re all guilty of it. So I think that’s really sound advice.

Chip Griffin: And we all think, I mean that it’s a natural tendency to think that bigger is better. Right. I mean, that’s just natural tendency. Right. Well, I mean they’re giant. They’ve got offices all over the world. Right, Right. That must be better.

Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. There are a lot of people who are running some pretty big agencies who are not doing particularly well financially, and a lot of small agency owners are doing fantastic.

Gini Dietrich: Doing great. Right. Yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah. I think your point earlier…

Chip Griffin: It’s not necessarily, there’s not necessarily this correlation that you think there is.

Gini Dietrich: Right. Yeah. I think your point earlier about being profitable and doing what you enjoy is really the point of this, which is figure out what it is, what kind of business it is that you want to run, and if you want to emulate certain things about the big guys, absolutely do that. But you’re not, don’t sit down to say, I’m going to be the next Amazon, or I’m going to be the next Edelman, or I’m going to be the next WPP or I’m gonna be the next McKinsey or Forester. Figure out what it is that you’re really good at doing and that you enjoy and build your business around that because that’s what’s going to make you scale quickly. That’s going to make you be profitable. It’s gonna, all of that stuff is going to come, but it’s when you’re trying to emulate and be someone or something that you’re not that you struggle.

Chip Griffin: Absolutely. And, and you’ll have a whole lot more fun doing it too. So that’s our message. Go out, have fun, be successful, and stop trying to be like somebody else. So Gini, I’m, I’m giving up on my dream. It didn’t last very long. I no longer want to be just like you.

Gini Dietrich: That’s fine. That’s great.

Chip Griffin: I wouldn’t mind a little hair, but I mean, there are advantages to not having hair too. So on that note, that will bring to an end of 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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