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Turbulent times ahead for agencies?

In this episode of the Small Agency Talk Show, Karen Swim of Solo PR Pro and Chip Griffin of SAGA discuss what lies ahead for agencies.

The news media is peppered with talk about The Great Resignation, inflation, declining consumer spending, cryptocurrency crashes, falling stock markets, variants of variants, and more.

How should agency leaders react to this steady stream of concerning news? What opportunities lie amid the chaos? Is now a good time to start a new agency?

Chip and Karen cover all of these topics and more in today’s show.

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 Small Agency Talk Show. I’m your host, Chip Griffin. I’m the founder of SAGA, the Small Agency Growth Alliance. And I am delighted to have with me one of our regular panelists, a good friend Karen Swim of Solo PR Pro. Welcome to the show, Karen.

Karen Swim  

Thank you for having me, Chip. It’s so lovely to be back again, happy new year, because this is the first time I’ve been on the show since 2022 started.

Chip Griffin  

Happy New Year to you as well, it is it is always good to see you, I get to watch you sometimes on your podcast. But it’s even better when we actually get to do this voice to voice,

Karen Swim  

You’re one of my favorite hosts. This is one of my favorite shows, you always serve up such great content. And I learn so much from your guests. So it’s always an honor to just join you.

Chip Griffin  

Well, the the mutual admiration society is here in full swing. But for those who somehow may not have heard of you before, can you just share a little bit about yourself and where people can find you online?

Karen Swim  

Sure. So I love for people to connect with me on social media, I have fun conversations there. Pretty much everywhere. I’m @KarenSwim. And as Chip mentioned, I, in addition to running my own little agency, my own little PR agency, I also run Solo PR Pro, which is a professional organization, membership community for independent practitioners in public relations and communications.

Chip Griffin  

And if you are a solo, you should absolutely be a member of Solo PR pro because there are lots of great resources for you there. And whether you’re just getting started or you’re looking to retool, or you just want to know best practices. Go ahead and sign up over there. And where is that website, Karen?

Karen Swim  

That is soloprpro.com. And we just unveiled our fancy new design.

Chip Griffin  

I noticed that I was on there just yesterday. And I’m like, Whoa, this is a whole different experience.

Karen Swim  

It is we changed it up a little bit for 2022. It was actually almost all of 2021 in the making, as you know, website projects go. But yeah, so please go check it out. We love that. And we’re still working through some of the bugs, but really happy to have that nice refresh. And we of course are and we’re open, our membership is open, because it’s not open year round. So yeah, if you’re interested, we’d love to welcome you.

Chip Griffin  

Excellent. Well. So with that, let’s go ahead and jump into the topic today. And we wanted to talk about is the the turbulent times that that may be ahead. And obviously it’s peering into the crystal ball, it’s hard to know for sure. But it is a new year, as you mentioned, it’s 2022. It’s still the 2020s. So we still have a lot of the fun stuff that’s been with us for the last couple of years, and doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon. But we also have just today reported out that consumer spending in December went down inflation is at a 40 year high. Anyone who follows the stock market knows that all sorts of crazy stuff is going on there. So there’s there’s some uncertainty ahead. And so as you’re as you’re thinking as a solo or a small agency, how should you be looking at the future? And, and Karen, what are you seeing as you talk to members, as you talk to agencies, about these turbulent times,

Karen Swim  

I am definitely seeing that uncertainty play out in the decisions that clients are making in terms of hiring. I’m seeing that budgets are taking longer to get approved. I you know, I’m seeing lots of companies that didn’t lock their budgets at the end of last year, they’re still working through those mechanics. And I’m sure it’s because they also are dealing with all of these external factors. So you have your supply chain issues, which really can impact a number of industries. Because if you don’t have the parts, then you don’t have the work. So you’re not thinking about, you know, bringing extending other resources you’re spending money on, on PR at that time until you get the foundational issues fixed. The hiring is hard, people have lots of open positions that they can’t hire for. I have personally seen people come in and people go out. And it’s not even necessarily because they’re unhappy with the new position. It’s because they get a better offer. And so they’re jumping ship pretty quickly to take advantage of this offer. So yeah, there is a lot of movement. It’s not it’s not the most stable time right now.

Chip Griffin  

Yeah, we’ve talked about the great resignation a lot on this show. And I know everybody in the space is talking about it because there is this. I mean, there’s been a talent challenge for agencies for a while now but it certainly it is tougher now today, I think than it was even six or 12 months ago. So you couple the challenge with hiring with the question marks that you have on the client side, and I think it makes some The planning very difficult. And it’s, I think it is also important to understand that this is not it’s not a uniform thing. And typically when we see these kinds of broader economic activity taking place, it tends to impact the larger agencies first, the less specialized ones. And then later, smaller ones are in some cases, for the smaller ones, not at all, depending on what their specialty is, and how it’s, you know, tied into the broader economic track.

Karen Swim  

Surely, you know, I and I, I feel like a broken record, because I know I say this in good and bad times, I really do think that no matter what’s going on in the economy, you can still thrive. You know, I started my business during the last big recession. And I had moved to Michigan, and had no idea what I was doing. By the way, it’s not like, you know, I had planned that far ahead to become an entrepreneur, but the crash hit Michigan first. So we were in it long before everybody else entered it. And I started a business during that time. So you can live through uncertain times, but it does take some planning. And I think one of the most important things that you can do is to make sure that you are sharpening things that you are taking a look at your workflow, taking a look at your own financials, take a look at your spending taken how, look at how your staffing accounts, look at your labor, look at your skill set, you know, now is a great time to really sharpen your skill set to maybe pull it in and focus on being more of a specialist rather than a generalist. Are there areas that are stronger for you lean into those areas and do an even better job at them. Take you know, professional development, I think that entrepreneurs can sometimes neglect that. And that’s a mistake, you should always be learning that you can always do better, you can always improve now is the time you hear a lot in the employment sector about rescaling and upscaling. But I think that that applies to entrepreneurs too. And, and I think that those are all your safeguards to handle these uncertain times. You can use this uncertainty you can look at, you know, what are people in your industries talking about? To figure out? Hmm, what are the problems that they’re going to need solved, and plan your business so that you are part of that solution? Not that you’re focusing on the same thing, because you’ve always done it this way. You’ve always done media relations, if you’re in PR, you’ve always done email marketing campaigns, because you’re in marketing, but what do they really need? What are the problems that they’re facing? And how can you solve those, that’s how you continue to stay relevant, and how you become an agency that gets budget when other agencies are being cut away.

Chip Griffin  

I think that’s a great point. And so if you think of turbulence as an opportunity, instead of just something that you have to weather and get through and, and wait for the other side, then you have the chance to make some of those adjustments to your own business, that that may not just help you to survive, but really thrive. And I mean, a number of the the smaller agencies that I’m working with right now are on track to have their strongest first quarter ever. And a lot of that is because they are very specialized. They know what they’re doing. And they’re they’re matching the actual challenges that clients have with the solutions that they’re providing.

Karen Swim  

I love that. I mean, I, I learned some of this actually from venture capitalists, and their thoughts about black swan events, mean opportunities, and they look at that, like, you know what, everything gets burned away. But then new things have an opportunity to grow. And if you’re looking at that opportunity and not so focused on the disaster, then you really can do very well in this climate.

Chip Griffin  

When I think I think smaller agencies and solos have a real opportunity. Because if larger organizations are saying, hey, we need to take a step back, we need to be a little bit more cautious and conservative, that creates an opportunity for folks who are able to be more nimble, more flexible, and frankly do things more affordably than some of the larger agencies out there who aren’t interested in a thing you know, below you know what, five or six figure a month retainer and and who insist on doing things the way they always have, take advantage of that and lean into that if you’re small.

Karen Swim  

I love that. I mean, I do I think small really is the new superpower because you’re agile. And you can respond faster to market changes. You also have the opportunity to add new skill sets or to double down on specialties a lot faster than a big machine. And you know, that’s not a knock on large agencies. I love them. I partner with them. But I also see where we have divergent lanes, you know, larger agencies you do and you need both in my opinion, you need the large and you need the small because we do different things even though our skills may really allow and some of the small agencies have come out of the big environment. But you know, big agencies definitely have their place. And I don’t think that they’re going to become extinct or that we’re competing with one another. But I think it’s important to not try to be the big agency, unless you’re aspiring to scale your business to that level, but to understand what your strengths are, for the size agency you are and the things that you can offer and the problems that you can uniquely solve.

Chip Griffin  

So I love a number of the things that you said there, because you pointed out the large agencies aren’t necessarily your competition. And frankly, you shouldn’t treat them as your competition if you’re smaller, because you’re going to get into trouble if you try to replicate what they do, because you can’t do it. And instead, you need to figure out what your superpower is, as a small agency and take advantage of that to drive the wedge to get the business that’s right for you. And that’s right for the client. And I think too often small agencies think that, that all that to the beat the next step, I have to get that Fortune 500 logo, I have to compete with, you know, the big holding company owned agencies, in order to be able to make my mark, you don’t have to do that there are lots of great opportunities out there for you to be creative and to be successful, that don’t require you to sell your soul or give up profits just to be in that same, you know, league, if you will.

Karen Swim  

Yeah, it’s funny, because I find that people in I think that this is across industries, I have a client in the healthcare space that talks about this how healthcare solutions, digital ones, particularly in any type of innovation, usually focus on the higher tier level. So that economically advantaged the tech savvy, or the the bottom portion, those that are marginalized and disadvantage. But what gets left out is that middle layer, I think that applies to, you know, small agencies in our business development as well, you either your eyes go to the top, so you want to look at those big enterprises, and you want to, you know, be one of their vendors and get in there. Or you look at the small businesses, the very small businesses, maybe you’re you’re hyperlocal. And so you’re focusing on small businesses in your town. But everybody forgets about that metal layer that’s huge, and ripe with so much opportunity. And it actually those are worthy accounts are where you can have longevity, where you can truly make a difference. And where the budgets are healthy.

Chip Griffin  

Right. I mean, that that middle swath is really where most agencies ought to be living. Because the small ones often are small businesses often make for an easy sale, but low profitability, they’re high maintenance, the larger ones, very difficult to get very expensive to get. And, and even when you get them, you have to end up jumping through so many hoops that your profitability usually is minuscule. Plus, you often become their bank, which is just stupid if you’re a small agency to be a bank for Fortune 100 company. But that’s what they expect of you if you want to play ball. So focus on that middle layer. And I think you’ll have a lot more success. But the other thing I would advise you to do particularly a start of the year, it’s a good thing to be thinking about is what do you want from your business? Whether you’re an agency or a solo? What Why are you doing this, and a lot of times, I think we get so wrapped up in just kind of advancing the business, though from from where it is today. And we never step back to take that bigger picture look. But we really need to understand why we own the business in the first place, what we want to get from it, not just in terms of how much money we want to make, but how we want to spend our time, how much time we want to spend. And you really need to craft that in your own mind so that you can make your decisions going forward. That’s what your employees are doing. That’s why some of them are leaving, because they’ve taken stock. And they said, This is not what I want to do. This is not where I want to live, this is not the kind of work I want to do. Whatever it is, you need to do the same thing because you’re in the driver’s seat, and you control what your business does for you.

Karen Swim  

Oh my god, that is such great advice. You know, I talked recently about something that I do, and it’s something that I don’t remember who originally introduced me to the concept of writing down what your ideal days look like. So it’s not just about the money and it can’t be because that, you know, it fulfills your bank account. But then if it leaves you unfulfilled with the type of work you’re doing, you’re gonna burn out. It’s and you’re not going to bring your best self quite honestly, if you’re just doing something just for the money and that’s the only driver. It really doesn’t allow you to really bring that passion for excellence to your clients and and I think that that is shortchanging not only them but yourself. I mean you should find some fulfillment and satisfaction in the work that you do. And so looking beyond that financial accomplishment, you know, how do you want to feel every day? Who do you want to work with? Who do you want to serve? What do you want your days to look like? I did that again recently and made a conscious decision. Not to take on new clients and the first quarter because I needed some time and some space to just breathe and to recover from the past couple years. And it allowed me to lean in more to the clients that I have. And to spend some extra time on some of the passions that I have that I sort of put on the backburner, in result is that I’ve been a lot more relaxed and a lot sharper in terms of my work. And so making those assessments at different periods of your life are really important. I think that that’s a great point.

Chip Griffin  

Yeah, look, if you’re unhappy with your business, you’re unlikely to reach the financial potential or other potential that you have. And so you can sit there and say, Well, you know, it doesn’t matter what I’m happy, I need to make this money, this is the best way for me to do it, I guarantee you that the odds are, you will not achieve that full potential if you’re unhappy. So, and a lot of times, I talk with agency owners to say, well, you know, I don’t really want to be doing this, but there’s no way other than for me to do this for the business. And if you, that may be true in the short term, right, it may be true for this week, next week, next month. But if you don’t know where you want to go, you can’t come up with a plan for how you want to get there, or how you’re going to get there. And so you need to have that ideal day that you describe sketched out, so that you can figure out those steps. And it may be that you have to make one change a quarter, and it takes a year to get there 18 months to get there, but have that target in sight, and you will be much more likely to get there than if you just say it’s not possible.

Karen Swim  

You know, I think fear drives a lot of people, at least. And I know that you know this, because you do a lot of coaching, that they plan to that. And so they allow fear to make their decisions. And you’re right, I hear this all the time. But what if you know, but, you know, people have this feast or famine mode. And so they just take stuff, and it doesn’t align, and it doesn’t fit the kind of business that you want to have. And that’s not how you get your ideal business by just taking all the scraps that are thrown at you, that puts you in the position of letting other people build a business, that is not a reflection of what you want. So it’s stepping back and realizing you know, what the work is out there. And it’s up to you to make those good business decisions. And sometimes, yes, you know, that does mean, taking an account that is not ideal, but what’s that mix in your business, you have to have a good reason for doing that. Sometimes you take an account because it meets your financial goals, it’s within your area of expertise. And it may not be like the best client ever. That’s okay. But if you have an entire roster of that kind of business, that decision, so you know, you need to decide on your mix. Because I think that sometimes making those five manual decisions, as long as you’re making it with a clear head, and you understand the time and the energy that’s going to be needed to serve those. That’s your decision. And it’s a good decision, when you make it with a clear mind. Maybe you’ve got two kids going into college, and you’re like, you know what, so we’re going to have a mix of, you know, 80% of clients that we absolutely adore. And we’re going to have 20% that, you know, maybe are a little painful in some ways, but they pay really well. That’s your, that’s okay.

Chip Griffin  

Well, and I think that’s part of the trick is that it has to be a conscious decision that you’re doing it and there has to be if there’s a negative with a client or project or some other decision that you’re making, there also has to be a positive that comes with it. And so you’re saying I’m accepting the negative that I’m aware of, because of this positive, at least for a period of time. That’s okay. But I think, you know, fear absolutely governs a lot of these decisions. And the other thing is inertia. And you know, inertia really is the enemy of building the business that you want and that you will like, and you start when I talk to someone and they say, well, well, that’s the way we’ve always done it. I hate that answer. Right? Yeah, that should never be your answer for why it should always be rooted in there’s a good reason why we’re doing this and why we’re continuing to do it in the future. And if there isn’t, then stop doing it. Make change.

Karen Swim  

If it’s not working, you know that it’s funny…

Chip Griffin  

Don’t change just for the sake of change, although I see that too. Right. You know, oh, you know what things are going really well. I think now it’s time for a change. Why?

Karen Swim  

Yeah, yeah. It’s I had a funny conversation with somebody recently over technology. And the person was struggling to, to make a different type of technology fit and I go, why are you doing that? You’ve told me that you like this particular brand of computer and you’ve been using it for years. Why are you trying to switch to something that is making you less productive? Well, because I feel bad because everybody in our industry is doing this and I’m like, that doesn’t make sense. Who cares? Like, do what works. Has this been working? Are you productive? Efficient? Do you feel good when you’re working? And you feel like you’re in control? Keep using that.

Chip Griffin  

Right? Well, yeah, and I see this all the time, we because agencies love to change project management systems, because, you know, nobody likes the project management system that they have. And so there’s always one out there that they hear about this better. And so yeah, let’s change. But But not only are you not actually getting any real improvement, usually when you switch, but you have all of the cost, not just financial, but the time cost of switching from one to another. So just I mean, if you’re going to change your your CRM, your project management tool, your email to any of these things that are that are integral to your day to day, make sure there’s a really darn good reason. Yeah, because otherwise, you’re just asking for trouble.

Karen Swim  

You are and it’s that fear of missing out, right? So you hear people talking about something and you go, Oh, we’re not using that, should we be using that? Okay, so then what we have is outdated, or we’re old fashioned, or we should be switching to this hot, cold thing. And, you know, I don’t know, maybe I’m just a weird kind of girl floating in my own little bubble. And it’s not that I think that I’m the smartest person on the planet, I just learned to kind of block that stuff out and not jump on a bandwagon, just because everybody’s talking about it. If you know, I listen, I keep an eye out. If something comes along, that really is a solution to an actual problem that I have. I’ll check it out, like, Hey, I’ve been having that issue. Maybe this is a fix. Let me check it out and see if that works. But I don’t just jump on stuff, just because so actually, the more that people talk about stuff, it makes me want to not do it.

Chip Griffin  

Right? Well, I’m sure I’m sure that you get asked all the time, you know, what, what’s the best tool for this? Or that? And, you know, my answer to that is almost always whatever, when you actually use, like, if you’re, I mean, if project management tool is a paper napkin, and you actually use it religiously, great, that’s, that’s the best tool for you. It doesn’t really matter. It doesn’t matter what you use, or I use, it’s what works for you. And, you know, when when you go out there, and you’re shopping for a project management tool, or a media database, databases are my favorite to pick on. Sorry, in the media database industry, usually end up picking the one that you hate less, that it’s

Karen Swim  

because you hate them all, you know.

Chip Griffin  

I’ve never met, anybody who loves their project management tool loves their media database loves their CRM, it’s just there with the one that at the moment, they hate less.

Karen Swim  

This is very true, sadly, because they never do everything that you want. But I don’t know about everybody else out there, I don’t have the time to build my own custom system that fits exactly how I think and work. So you kind of make do with it. Like you said, which one do you hate least which one has the things that are most important to you, and you deal with the stuff that you really don’t like, which is a lot, quite honestly,

Chip Griffin  

Well I think you just struck on the key thing there, which is you haven’t found something that matches the process that you use, and the way you do things. And too often, we end up letting the tools guide us and the tools make these decisions for us. But we need to have business processes . And business processes  and thinking helps you get through some of these turbulent times that we’ve been talking about. Because you have a way of doing things you review that way and make sure that it continues to be efficient continues to work for your team and for your clients. If you do that, and then you find the tools that help support you as best they can. You’ll be in much better shape than if you say, Oh, well, I’m going to use Basecamp or Asana or Monday because that’s what everybody says I should use. Yeah. And then you sort of tool everything to work with that. That’s that’s when you end up with a nightmare scenario. And it means that, once again, you’re allowing inertia to take you forward rather than a strategic decision about how you want to run your agency.

Karen Swim  

Yeah, I mean, technology is that rabbit hole, right? It’s it really is when it comes to tech knowledge, it really hangs people up because they think that they have to have a technological solution. That may not always be the case. Sometimes you need a process reinvention, and it doesn’t take technology to solve it. So you have to figure out what problem you’re trying to solve. And then you can figure out what to apply to that. It’s almost like saying, well, I need you know, a screwdriver for everything because it’s wireless and you know, I can carry it around but sometimes you need a hammer sometimes you need a Jack saw. So you have to is a Jack saw thing. I don’t know. I don’t know how I got down this tool.

Chip Griffin  

You mean Jigsaw but I’m sure

Karen Swim  

I don’t know jigsaw.

Chip Griffin  

mean, there’s Jack saw. I don’t know.

Karen Swim  

Maybe there is the Jack saw, not a tool person Although I do know how to use a drill, but you know you, you start to look at this thing because you think that it’s more powerful. And because it’s technology and sometimes, like you said, it could be a notebook, you just need a notebook and paper and some columns, or you need a spreadsheet, you know, good old fashioned spreadsheet works in a lot of cases, or maybe it’s none of those things. Maybe it’s just you sitting down and going, You know what, there’s a step that I don’t need to do that’s adding to my angst, right? Eliminate stuff, eliminate.

Chip Griffin  

right? Make, make sure it’s actually doing something for you that it’s not just, you know, ticking a box that it’s actually useful and productive. Well, so as we’re sort of starting to wind down our time here together today, you know, we’ve talked about turbulent times, you’ve mentioned that you got started in turbulent times, if someone’s getting started now, what advice would you offer them as far as how they should be looking at the environment and how they can make sure that they’re getting what they want out of their business, whether they’re a solo, or looking to grow a full fledged agency,

Karen Swim  

I think that you really have to be aware of the external factors in the same way that we do SWOT analysis, and we look at external things and how they impact but you can’t allow that to get in your head and to drive your decisions, because it’ll make you afraid, and it’ll make you not move forward. So you’re aware of it, you plan for it, you know, I am a huge fan of having a strategic plan that’s documented doesn’t have to be 20 pages long as it can be a short, one page thing, you can, as Chip said, if you want to write it on a paper napkin, as long as you put it to paper, so that you have something to reference back and you can build a framework around that. So, you know, be aware plan, you know, how will you overcome this? What are the big things that you need to do? How are you going to fill your pipeline with opportunities, because the one thing that will take you through the ups and downs that are going to come in business period, is choice. So if you always keep your pipeline filled with opportunities, you have choices, that means that you can let go of clients that don’t serve you, it means that if a client ends a relationship with you, it doesn’t sink your ship, because you’ve got a pipeline filled with activities. So I think, make sure that you plan for business development, that’s so important, you have to have ongoing lead generation activities that can’t be in a firestorm where it’s like, oh my God, I need work, because you make terrible decisions when you’re stressed like that. And then believe in what you’re doing. And know that planning overcomes a multitude of things. That also means having a financial plan and having some cushion as you go into this so that you can ride out those waves because the waves are going to come and sometimes they’re going to come fast and hard, but they don’t have to sink you if you’re prepared for it.

Chip Griffin  

Yeah, I think that’s all tremendous advice. And And overall, just if you’ve got that vision for where you want to go, and you stick to it, that will help you quite a bit. And if you’re if you are in those moments where you just worry about the famine side of feast or famine and and those kinds of things, you will make those bad decisions that you will end up regretting later, you’ll look back and say how did I get to where I am today, this is not the business that I want to run. No reason for that take advantage of some forward thinking some planning take advantage of resources like Solo PR Pro that will give you that opportunity to learn from others and and tap into that expertise that will help you to build the business that you actually want to have because you’ll be happy and hopefully financially rewarded as well. So that’s going to bring us to an end of the time that we have available today because I do try to keep this to 30 minutes. For those of you who are listening to this after the fact you can always tune in live we’re live on YouTube at noon Eastern time, every Friday on the Small Agency TV site, Small agency.tv Yes, that’s that’s how you get there. It’s a shortcut to our YouTube channel. You can go to smallagencygrowth.com If you are interested in learning more about SAGA, this show is now available as an audio only podcast so if you prefer not to to see my charming little face you can actually just listen to my voice in the voice of the panelists just subscribe on whatever podcast platform is your current favorite. And with that that will bring an end to our show. It’s it’s a great way for us to bring the week to a sort of close it’s why I love doing this every Friday because I get to talk with smart people like Karen. Karen Swim has been our panelists today from Solo PR Pro you can visit them at SoloPRpro.com With that, have a good weekend, everybody.

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