Transcript 138: How to Make the Most of Your Marketing Agency Relationship, with Drew McLellan

Nicole Mahoney: 00:22 Hello listeners, this is Nicole Mahoney, host of destination on the left. I am passionate about travel and tourism and love learning from the experiences of professionals in the industry. That is why I’m so excited to introduce today’s guest, drew Mclellan. Drew is a 25 year marketing veteran who helps clients create authentic love affairs with their customers. He also helps other agency owners learn how to take their business to the next level. He loves to create Aha moments for his clients, peers, and audiences across the land, through vivid storytelling, Italian heritage inspired hand gestures, and the occasional tipping of a sacred cow. Drew is also one of the world’s top marketing and branding bloggers. According to Ad Age’s, top one 50 index. Recently, he has appeared in The New York Times Entrepreneur magazine, Business Week and fortune small business. The Wall Street Journal calls him. One of the 10 bloggers that every entrepreneur should read. I know drew in his role is top dog at the agency Management Institute and Organization of over 200 small to medium sized privately held agencies.

Nicole Mahoney: 01:25 My company break the ice media belongs to one of the Ami owners networks and we have sent many of our employees including myself through several of the Ami workshops that have helped us be a better agency. I invited drew on the podcast today because he is in the trenches with many agencies across the u s and the world. He has unique perspective on how agencies serve their clients and they thought he could bring that perspective to you destination on the left listeners, my hope for this episode is that our conversation will take some of the mystique out of the client agency relationship. As many of you know, if you are currently working with, have worked with or plan to work with an agency, having a strong partner and the right chemistry can make a big difference on the marketing results that you achieve. I also hope Jews insights will help you navigate those difficult conversations and how prepare you as you make future agency choices. So let’s get into the conversation through, I’m super excited to have you on this week’s episode and I know our listeners will gain so much from our conversation, but before we get started, can you tell us a little bit about your background in your own words? I just find it adds so much more context to our conversation.

Drew McLellan: 02:34 Sure. Thanks for having me on the show. So I’m an agency guy. I have been, uh, I’ve only worked in agencies other than some college jobs ever since I got my Undergrad and my master’s degree. Uh, I’ve worked in large agencies, so I’ve worked in, um, sort of big, big box. Yep. Thousands and thousands of employees. I’ve worked in small boutique shops and I’ve owned my own agency for almost 25. And on top of that, I own and run an organization called Agency Management Institute, which serves independently owned agencies, helping them grow their business responsibly in a way that they can scale and sustain the business. It’d be profitable. And all those sort of things. So pretty much 24, seven I’m thinking about agency life.

Nicole Mahoney: 03:20 Yeah. And that’s why I’m really excited to have you on today because I know a lot of our listeners work with uh, agencies. They might actually manage multiple agency relationships. And I really thought by having you on and, and having this conversation would help our listeners kind of understand a little bit better about how they can get more out of that agency relationship. Maybe give them a little bit of a peek behind the green curtain, if you will, of how agencies operate. So yeah, I’m, I’m looking forward to it. Yeah. Awesome. Um, so let’s just kind of dive in here, uh, on kind of more of a trends topic. I know a lot of our listeners probably are seeing some trends out there themselves, but you’ve got the inside scoop on kind of this whole idea of agency, client relationship and, and sort of how it’s been evolving and changing. It’s not necessarily the historical agency of record kind of a relationship anymore. And so I’m wondering if you can share a little bit about what you’re seeing out there on the ground.

Drew McLellan: 04:16 Sure. So every year we go out, so not only am I working with 250 or so agencies, uh, every year, but we also go out and we do research. We have a research series called agency edge. And every year we talk to Cmos, business owners, anybody who’s sort of driving the agency relationship from the client’s side to find out sort of what’s going on, on their side of the equation, what are they looking for, how to relationships get bumpy, all of that sort of thing. Um, and, and so what some of the trends that we’re seeing are, you know, in the, in the mad men days, if anybody watched that show, you know, agencies, um, existed primarily to place media, a traditional media, television, radio, print for their clients. And so brands would, would choose one agency and they did all their work with one agency because it was all mostly media driven.

Drew McLellan: 05:07 And so it didn’t make sense to fragment that relationship and have like one agency doing TV in another agency doing radio. But as the marketing channels have gotten so much more complex, I mean, just think about all the places you can have your brand message, uh, whether it’s on social channels and you’re working on organic, the organic side or the paid side, you know, think about, you know, when we think about radio now think about Spotify and Pandora along with traditional radio. So there’s so many, yeah. You know, avenues in which your advertising or marketing dollars can be spent. There’s all the Seo and all the on site, you know, sort of elements that a lot of age are. A lot of brands have decided that it’s pretty tough to find an agency, a generic agency that can do all of that. And so what they’re really doing is more and more, and they’re looking for specialists, so agencies who have a depth of expertise in their category.

Drew McLellan: 06:03 So you know, maybe you’re a Pharma agency or a health care agency or you know, for your audience, a travel and tourism agency. So the idea of sort of hiring, uh, a local agency just because they’re down the street, um, is really coming out of fashion. And it really is much more about finding somebody who has a depth of expertise, not only in your industry but in all of the things that your industry needs them to do in terms of the channels and the brand messaging and all that sort of thing. So that’s one of the big trends. You know, I think another trend is that, um, the work’s gotten a lot more collaborative. So it used to be that agencies would sort of go, you know, into a conference room, decide what the are clients should do and come back and unveil it to the client. And again, because it was mostly traditional media, they were showing them storyboards or things like that. But now I think the work between agencies and clients as much more let’s get together and whiteboard something, think through some ideas, um, and then everyone brings their point of view in their subject matter expertise into that room. And so it’s a much more holistic solution that comes out of that. And then typically the agency executes on it.

Nicole Mahoney: 07:11 Yeah. I think those are two really great points. And I want to back up to the first one about the, um, you know, the, the specialist or that category looking for someone who’s specific to a category. Cause I know just in talking to folks that we work with, sometimes the question comes up, um, if we’re gonna work with somebody who’s deep into a specific industry like travel and tourism, um, are there conflicts of interests that I have to be concerned about? Right? If I’m the client, I’m thinking about that. And what do you seeing, um, you know, in your research and when you’re out there in terms of how clients are managing that question?

Drew McLellan: 07:50 Yeah. So, um, I think one of the interesting things is when we talk to clients in this research about, about that very question, what they said is, I, I know that my business is unique and I want an agency that understands my business model, that understands sort of how I go to market, the kind of consumers that we talked to. And so I actually want my agency that have at least 25 to 50% of their business in my core category because then I can rest easy knowing that I don’t have to educate them about what it’s like to be a car repair shop or whatever it is. Um, and that and that they have a trust level. I mean, honestly, agency, client relationships are like any relationship. They are based on trust. And so when you are engaging with an agency and they are committed to you and your business, there is a, there is a trust factor of I know that what I tell them is confidential.

Drew McLellan: 08:47 Most agencies have confidentiality agreements between their clients or they’re legally bound not to share that information. And that agencies are good at having, putting up sort of firewalls where information is not passed between teams that are working on similar clients or um, you know, back and forth between clients. So it’s, it’s one of those things that we worry about a lot, uh, on the client side, but very rarely actually becomes an issue. And the on the plus side of having an agency that truly understands your industry outweighs that potential fear or risk. You know, every, every business is so unique and their stories so different that even if they do sort of fall in the same category, what you do for one you cannot possibly do for the other. And so I think a lot of times it’s a, it’s a fear that is unfounded.

Nicole Mahoney: 09:36 Yeah. Yeah. And um, you know, that that made me think when you talked about having that 25 to 50%, um, you know, of their, of their clients within a particular industry and not having to essentially train them on your business. Right. Um, kind of leads into the second part where you talked about the collaborative work but more of the solving business problems, um, where agencies are getting more involved in the collaborative work as you described it. But in addition to that, really understanding the whole business and not just looking for a tactical marketing solution, for example.

Drew McLellan: 10:09 Yeah. I think that’s a big shift in agency life today from again back in the mad men days. Back in the mad men days, it was really about just pushing out a message and it was really about positioning the business and and selling stuff, um, through the, through the marketing or advertising. And today I think it’s a much more complex partnerships. So agencies are getting involved in helping businesses recruit employees, uh, they get involved in training people that get involved in really defining the brand and how you are different from everyone else. They get involved in delivery channels in terms of sales cycles and all those sorts of things. So a great agency is really a great business advisor and it’s much broader than what ad are you going to put on Facebook or are you going to run a radio spot? It’s really about let’s talk about your business goals for the year and let’s figure out all the ways that we can march you towards those goals. Whether it’s something we do for you or not, it could still be something that we have a lot of insight into that we can give you some counsel on or advice on or if nothing else, just be a thinking partner. So yeah, you’re right that the relationship has gotten much more complex and much deeper, which I think benefits both the client and the agency.

Nicole Mahoney: 11:27 Yeah, absolutely. I love that idea of the thinking partner. Um, you know, and like you had described that collaborative work, kind of white boarding ideas together. I think that that’s just a really great, great point. Um, so when you did your research, uh, you know, with those brands and on the client side, um, what were some other things that they had pointed out that, that really worked for them in terms of a successful agency relationship or maybe that didn’t work for them? Um, you know, that maybe some of our listeners might be thinking, you know, how do they know if they have the right agency or if they’re trying to look for one? What, what kinds of traits and things that should they be thinking about?

Drew McLellan: 12:07 Yeah. So some of the things that clients tell us that are important to them around the agency are number one, that, um, that the agency is agile pace of business today is so fast and things change on a dime and that client needs to know that their agency can pivot very quickly with them and, and get out a new message or a new campaign or whatever it is they need to do. So that agility is really critical. The second thing is the client. The clients want their agencies to be able to sort of manage and handle complex issues. So they acknowledge that the world of marketing has gotten eat very complex and they want a partner who can help them sort of navigate that complexity. Another thing that we hear over and over again is that clients want transparency. They want to know what they’re paying for, how their money is being spent.

Drew McLellan: 13:03 Uh, if the agency is, um, taking a markup on costs or a commission on media, which is, you know, traditionally not very common traditional way that agencies get paid. And by the way, most of those, yeah. Media commissions with some clients don’t understand those are, those are discounts that the media is giving the agency and a lot of cases, so the client would have been paying it anyway. Um, but that’s just part of how the agency gets compensated. But whatever, whatever that model is, clients want transparency around it. It’s not that they don’t want the agency to be fairly compensated, they just want to understand how it’s, how it works and where their money is going. Which I think is reasonable. And I think particularly when it comes to digital media and Seo and some of those things where quite honestly most people don’t understand how it works.

Drew McLellan: 13:52 They don’t understand how the money is spent. They have no idea how labor intensive it is, is they think it’s sort of a click on two buttons and you’re at Google ad words campaign is done. MMM. You just need to really slow down as an agency and explain all of that to your clients. I don’t believe clients want to stick it to agencies and I don’t believe agencies want to stick it to clients. I just think money is one of those weird things. It’s a little uncomfortable to talk about. So we probably don’t do it as thoroughly as we should. And I think that’s what clients are indicating to us when they, when they talk about that in the research.

Nicole Mahoney: 14:27 Yeah. And uh, I think you’re right about that money piece certainly. Um, you know, on the client side, clients want to make sure that they’re getting the most out of the, out of the dollar that they’re spending. Right, right. Yeah, absolutely. So I’m drew, I want to, uh, touch now on kind of what have you seen with your vast experience, those 250 agencies that you work with. I know you’re in on a lot of different, um, uh, conversations with agencies about their clients and what kind of, um, what kind of successful relationships, what makes a successful relationship between a client and agency? What are some things that stand out to you when you say, wow, they really, that client agency relationship is, is really, really strong.

Drew McLellan: 15:11 Uh, I’m going to sound a little bit like a relationship coach for a second because it’s not that it’s not that different than our personal relationships. So, you know, I think going in with really clear expectations of each other and being really honest about what you need and want from each other so that people aren’t guessing. So you’re not putting someone in the position of having to wonder if somebody is happy or not happy. Um, so number one that I think it’s about, um, spending time together. So it’s really difficult for an agency to guide a client business if you can’t get them on the phone or you can’t get them in a conference room or on a video call. And everything is done by texting, emails, really important that you have some sort of eye contact and some sort of presence with each other.

Drew McLellan: 15:57 Um, I think it’s awfully important that when things go bad that you sit down and talk about it. So it is a, it is a relationship involved with involving a bunch of human beings. So something’s gonna go wrong. There’s going to be a misunderstanding. Somebody’s feelings are going to get hurt, someone’s going to get mad at, ball’s going to get dropped, whatever. But just like in any relationship, you don’t break up with somebody, whether they’re friends or a spouse or whatever because somebody made a mistake. And so I think because money is involved, client sometimes jump the gun and it’s like, oh, that’s it, I’m done. And then they have to start all over with somebody else. And so I think investing the time to talk through a problem when there is a problem and helping and working together to sort of solve that. I think another thing that’s really critical, and this is on both sides by the way, is gratitude.

Drew McLellan: 16:48 So it’s a lot easier to bust a hump or state or stay late on a Friday or pulled together another campaign over a weekend or do all the things that agency people do on a regular basis for their clients when the clients are grateful for it. So, you know, taking the time to acknowledge what your partner is done, taking time to say thank you. Taking time to recognize when they went above and beyond the call of duty. All of those things I think go a long way. And on the agency side, I think appreciating your client and letting them know that you’re grateful for the partnership, for the friendship. Because a lot of times it’s, you know, our clients aren’t just our clients and they become our friends. And so, you know, treating them that way and being transparent about the fact that you enjoy their company and you enjoy the work that you’re doing together is critical.

Drew McLellan: 17:40 But I also think is it’s business basics. Like we should have a good contract that outlines how we’re working together and we should have a detailed scope of work. So both of us have a common understanding of how much I’m paying if I’m the client and what am I getting as a result of that and when am I getting it and all those sorts of things. But honestly, I think a lot of it is just about nurturing the relationship and not seeing each other as ever series, but seeing each other as true business partners. That’s when it really works.

Nicole Mahoney: 18:11 Yeah, I think that that’s such a great advice. And as you’re talking, hopefully our listeners recognize some of those, um, you know, defining clear expectations and nurturing the relationship. We explore a lot on this show about collaboration and what makes a successful collaborations. And this is really just another one of those collaborations absolutely between agency and client. So, um, I think those were just really great points that you’ve made.

Drew McLellan: 18:39 I think make it, I think we make it weird because money changes hands, right? So what do you think about most collaborations? There’s probably not a one party paying another party, but at the end of the day it is still a collaboration and everyone is bringing value to that partnership. Whether it is the dollars that I’m paying you, if, if I’m the client or it’s my expertise and creativity if I’m the agency. And so I think we let money make it weird when maybe we should be better about it than that.

Nicole Mahoney: 19:09 Yeah, I think that’s a, that’s a really great point. And, and um, I also love how you talked about gratitude from both sides. You know, I think that’s something that gets overlooked so often and I think that’s wonderful that you were able to point that out for, for us. Um, so drew, you kind of mentioned it in this next question. You sort of answered it in this last one, but I’m sure you’ve got a little bit more insight for us. Um, what if, what if, uh, one of our listeners might be in a relationship with an agency right now and it’s just not really working out? Yeah,

Drew McLellan: 19:41 it happens. Um, you know, sometimes when an account person gets changed out or sometimes just, again, just like another relationship, I think sometimes you start to take each other for granted if you’ve been together for awhile. So if I was a client and I had an agency relationship and I was feeling either sort of underserved or they had been making a bunch of mistakes or whatever core problem was, the first thing I would do is I would ask for a, I would ask for a meeting and I would ideally do that in person. Um, but if I can’t do that in prison, I certainly would do it over video. I would want eye contact and I would say to them, you know what I mean, I am not happy with how our relationship is going and I want to, I want to put our heads together to see if, if this is something that we can fix.

Drew McLellan: 20:24 So I would immediately acknowledged that my intention is not to fire them because everybody comes in all defensive and all worked up. But then I really am hoping we can find a solution that allows us to fix whatever is broken. And then I would, I would go into that meeting, um, or I might even send it in advance, but I would sort of walk them through some of the specific things with examples. It’s hard for somebody to say, when someone says, well, you just take me for granted. I didn’t, I’m not sure I know what that means. I know what it means for me if someone takes me for granted, but I may not know what it means for you. So the more specific examples you can give me, then I can, I can react to those examples and I can come up with specific solutions to the PR to those problems.

Drew McLellan: 21:10 But when, when we use sort of, you know, I, I feel like I’m paying too much or I’m not getting the attention I want those sort of generic statements. I think it’s hard for the agency to come up with, okay. The core set of solutions that will be very specific in solving the problems that the client is. And you know what I think you think you give it mmm. Some time to try and work out and I think you set up, okay, let’s talk every Thursday at two o’clock to talk about if this is getting better or, you know, I think you have like a cadence to try to resolve the issue. But I also think if I’m the client, I’m going to say to the agency, you know what, if, if we can’t fix this in a month or two months or whatever the timeframe is, then I have to, I have to go find a different partner.

Drew McLellan: 21:54 Right. I want this to work. We wanted to work with you guys, but I’m not willing to give it more than 60 days or whatever the timeframe is to see if we can fix it. And then I think you both, because it is a relationship. If I, whatever the problem is, I promise you it’s not just the agency’s fault and it’s never just the client’s fault either. Everybody is contributing to whatever is broken. And so I think it requires the effort on both parts to try and resolve the issue hopefully. And you have a good resolution to it. And if not, then I think you want to handle the breakup really gracefully, be fair, give them proper notice, pay all the bills that you owe, try and break up in a time when you can sort of truncate the work. And this is a good breaking point on this project.

Drew McLellan: 22:39 You know, one of the things that clients do to agencies, which is really unfortunate, is they’ll pick up the phone and say, sorry, it’s not working out. It’s Tuesday and I as a Friday, we’re done. And what that, what it clients don’t understand is what that does to agencies is, you know, that sends agencies into a tailspin. They oftentimes they have to let people go. They have to slash expenses. Um, there’s just not a lot of fat in an agency where they can absorb a client, just bailing on them in a couple of, a couple of days notice. So if you’re going to break up, do it, do it gracefully and, and do it kindly because sooner or later you or your worlds are going crash again and you want to, you want to leave that relationship, um, intact if you can. And with everybody respecting and liking each other, you don’t have to work with an agency forever, but you want to exit it as gracefully as you entered it.

Nicole Mahoney: 23:32 Yeah, absolutely. I think that’s a, that’s a really great point as well. And um, makes me think of some advice I got when I was a young professional that told me, always take the high road, right, regardless of the situation. A, it is a small, small world. You never know when you’re gonna run into them again.

Drew McLellan: 23:49 Well, and in today’s world, you’re going to bump into them on Facebook and linkedin and you know, even trade show events or things like that. So you just, you just want to be, you just want to be kind about it and you, you want it. Do you want to do it in a way that if you are on the other side, it would feel okay to you. Nobody likes to have a relationship breakup. Nobody likes to lose a client, but there, there are good ways to do it in their bad ways to do it. And so it’s best not to let your emotions get in the way and you know, try and be professional about it. Yeah, absolutely.

Nicole Mahoney: 24:24 So drew, um, I want to give you an opportunity to talk a little bit about agency Management Institute and um, you know, in full disclosure to our listeners, of course, our company break the ice media as a member of agency management institute. But I’d love for our listeners to understand a little bit about some of the resources that are out there. Um, you know, yours is one, there’s several that are out there, but the things that their agencies are out doing, um, you know, to make sure that they’re bringing forth, you know, the best possible service if you will in business forward for their clients. So can you talk a little bit about your organization and then kind of, you know, what, what agencies get from, from being part of something like that?

Drew McLellan: 25:05 Yeah, I, I think, uh, agency management institute has been around since the 90s. And um, the premise of it is that no matter how smart or good a business owner is, that with the rapid change of business today, that there are best practices that for any of us when we are heads down serving our clients, it’s hard to look up and go, oh, the world has changed. I have to change too. And so ami is really about making sure that our members, agencies like yours are members are always sort of front and center of what the best practices are in terms of running their business. Well what, um, you know, what clients are looking for a new service lines to offer. We offer training so that, uh, agencies serve their clients better. We offer training around, um, you know, money management and all those sorts of things so that the business is viable so that agencies can afford to have all the resources at their clients need.

Drew McLellan: 26:05 But really what we are is we’re a think tank where agency owners get together and they learn from each other and they share things that have worked for them with their clients, with other agency owners. So, uh, as you know, everybody who comes together is a, is in a non competitive set. So a group, we’ll come together and none of those people have to worry about anybody in the, in the room stealing their clients because they’re all so diverse and they’re scattered all over the globe right now actually. Um, so it gives them the freedom to really share all of the things that they’ve learned in serving clients, which means everybody in the room gets smarter and better takes better care of their clients. So what I find is that the agency owners that events not, it’s not so much the money. It’s the time.

Drew McLellan: 26:51 It’s like, you know, walking away from your business for three days, you know, a few times a year. That’s not easy to do. So what I find is these are the agency owners that are really committed to bringing, you know, the very best to their clients, to their team, uh, and want to keep evolving their business so that it’s always relevant and beneficial to everybody. And so, you know, these are the best of the best, I think, in terms of people who recognize, no matter how smart you are or how much, you know, the business is changing so fast that you can’t be smart enough and you can’t know it all. So why not surround yourself by other smart people who are also advancing their businesses. You can learn from them and you don’t have to make it all up on your own.

Nicole Mahoney: 27:34 Yeah. Um, and I, and I appreciate that because I know our listeners, there’s, there’s a lot of professional development opportunities out there for our listeners and organizations that they belong to. Um, but I think it’s important for them to understand also maybe from the agency side that the things that their agencies might be doing so that they can bring, uh, be the best selves that they can possibly be and bring that service forward to them. So,

Drew McLellan: 27:57 well, you know, when you think about it, odds are your listeners are going to conferences and conventions. And one of the things I love the most is when they get to talk to people who do what just what they do, but in another part of the country or with a different kind of travel and tourism kind of business. So it’s the exact same thing for agency owners. They just, there are not a lot of places for them to come together where they can really be candid with one another about how business is going and not only what they’ve learned, but the mistakes they’ve made and all of that. And so organizations like Ami provide that opportunity for agency owners.

Nicole Mahoney: 28:30 Yeah, absolutely. So true. I knew this would be a really good conversation and, and, and very valuable for our listeners. Um, but uh, I think we need to wrap up at this point and I’m wondering if there’s anything that maybe we haven’t covered or that, uh, that you haven’t been able to say yet that I haven’t asked you for?

Drew McLellan: 28:50 Yeah, if I was, if I was a client today and I was looking for an agency, um, here are some things that I would look for. Number one, I would look for an agency that understands my industry and my business. Number two, I would look for an agency that is doing good job of marketing itself. So are they out on the social channels? Are they creating content that is useful for me in my role? Are they demonstrating their expertise and their smarts in ways that make me realize even without talking to them, did they understand not only their world, which is marketing but my world, whichever my industry is. And then at the end of the day, because it is a relationship, because it is somebody you’re going to be talking to on a daily or weekly basis in some fashion or form, whether it’s by email or video call, you’re actually going to sit in a coffee shop together.

Drew McLellan: 29:43 Whatever it is. This is a decision that should be, should partially be based on head and heart. So the head part is do they understand my industry? Are the solutions that are talking about, um, are there going to solve my problems? Are they asking really interesting, intelligent questions? That’s the head part. But the hard part is, are these people I like, are these people that I feel like I could create a relationship with? Could I be friends with these people? Are they, do I feel like they’re telling me the truth? Do I feel confident in how they approach the business and the problems? Like how do I actually feel about these people? Because I’m betting a lot on them. When I’m, when I’m saying, you’re my agency and you’re going to help me solve these problems and I’m going to give you x number of dollars, I’m putting a lot on the line, whether I own the business or I’m the Cmo or the VP of marketing or whatever the title is, I’m either risking my job where I’m risking my own money. So Aye. I would say it’s gotta be both a head and a heart decision and you should not sort of poo poo either side of that equation.

Nicole Mahoney: 30:47 Yeah, I think that’s, that’s awesome. Um, hadn’t heard. I love that. And it is, you know, people that you like and that trust is so, so important as well. Um, so I, I really appreciate you taking some time with us today, drew, and we’ll look forward to catching up with you again.Drew McLellan: 31:03 You Bet. My pleasure. Thanks for having me on the show.