Friday, December 4, 2009

Part 4: 2010 Success -- New Business

In parts one, two, and three, we stressed the importance of taking a critical assessment of 2009, revisiting or creating your vision for the firm you want to become, and evaluating and maximizing your client relationships.

These are all critical components of becoming more successful in 2010. But, as we all know new business is the lifeblood of all successful firms. So here are some ways to make your 2010 new business effort more effective.

1. Assess what’s working and what hasn’t worked. Take a critical look back at the plan you developed and create a simple list of those tactics that were successful. Commit to doing more of that in 2010.

2. Review what you learned from your new business wins and losses during the year. Are you building relationships with the prospects? Have you really made the effort to be smart about the prospect’s business and communication need? Are you delivering “cookie-cutter presentations and proposals? Have there been “chemistry” problems?

3. Have an “outsider” review your agency’s capabilities presentation. Is it dull? Are you using latest presentation techniques? Are you committed to “creative theater” – making your presentations fun and demonstrating your creativity as an agency?

4. Evaluate your marketing efforts. Do you have a formal plan? Do you have an adequate budget? Whom are you reaching? How are they responding? What do you need to be doing differently in 2010?

5. Identify new potential targets, including your “dream” clients – clients you would “die” to have on your client list. Create an action plan for each one – a simple series of actions designed to get an introduction, a referral or ideally a meeting. Remember “six degrees of separation”. Who do you know that knows someone (who may know someone) at the prospect organization”? I guarantee you will be able to make a connection to your ideal clients.

Many agencies have hired business development specialists either on a full or part-time basis to lead their new business efforts. Consider whether this is a smart strategy for your firm.

What other ideas do you have for new business success in 2010?

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Part 3: Positioning Your Agency for 2010 Success

One of the most important aspects of your 2010 planning should be a critical evaluation of your relationships and work for your major clients.

I grew up in Burson-Marsteller, where formal account reviews were part of the fabric of the culture that made Burson a great firm.

It doesn’t matter how small (or large) your firm is, account reviews must be an integral part of your business planning. And, what better time than now as many companies are beginning to plan and establish marketing communications and public relations budgets for 2010.

Besides, how can you create your agency’s revenue goals without having a good handle on the revenue you can expect from your current clients?

While new business is the lifeblood of all agencies, organic growth from your existing clients is the easiest new business you will ever get. Yet, too many firms are concerned more with “just doing the work” than with building the relationships and uncovering new opportunities that will add revenue to the firm.

That’s where the account review comes in.

When I work with agencies on account reviews, we go through a structured process that answers the following questions, among others:

• A critical assessment of the work you did this past year and whether you really achieved the objectives and if not, why not? Where is the agency vulnerable?

• A financial review. Did fees increase or decrease? Was the account profitable? Why?

• Key challenges the client faces now and in 2010.

• What new ideas if implemented would have the greatest impact on the client’s business?

• How do you rate your client relationships? With whom must you build relationships in 2010 and how will you go about it?

• How do the key client contacts perceive the agency? Do you need to change that perception?

• Do you have the right staffing mix?

The account review can be an important part of your success in 2010. It eliminates surprises, helps you develop new ideas for new budgets, and creates a plan to build or reinforce key relationships.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Positioning Your Agency for 2010 Success -- Part 2

As I said in Part 1, it is not too early to start your planning for 2010. In fact, it is never too early to start thinking ahead about where you want your firm to be in the next 3 months, 6 months, year, or even three years.

This is called working “on” your business, not “in” your business. So, here’s my second critical strategy for success in 2010.

Strategy 2: Revisit Your Firm’s Vision and the Strategies to Get There

Once you’ve assessed 2009 and captured critical insights, start thinking about 2010. For me the first step in business planning is to understand how next year’s plan will move the firm toward what you want your agency to become. I’m not talking about meeting financial goals (though that’s obviously a key need), but rather your vision of the firm you want to create.

When you started your firm you had a vision even if you didn’t call it that. What’s happened to that vision? Still valid? Needs to be reassessed? Already achieved it? Not possible?

Having a clear and compelling vision of the firm you want to “become” is the cornerstone of a great agency and the hallmark of great leadership. It is also a vital step in successful and meaningful business planning.

I have conducted visioning sessions and strategy sessions for more than 25 firms and I can assure you unless you have a roadmap – a guide – for where you want to end up and how you will get there, the journey will be so much harder.

“Most companies fail in their growth because they don’t have a vision,” says former Southwest Airlines CEO Howard Putnam. “When you have a vision and someone comes to you with some convoluted idea, you can hold it up to the vision and ask ‘Does it fit? Does it fly? If not, don’t bother me.’”

It worked for Southwest and scores of other major corporations – and it has worked for agencies both large and small.

Here are some criteria for a vision:

• It must be realistic, yet idealistic and cannot be achieved without “stretching”.
• It is aspirational – future-oriented. A vision is not today; it is tomorrow.
• It must be attractive to you your staff. They must want to be a part of it.
• It provides direction for the future in succinct, often competitive terms.
• Most importantly, your vision must be specific enough to become a filter for key decision-making.

Commit to making every major decision in 2010 -- staffing, resources, investments, new business, marketing, etc., -- one that propels your firm towards your vision.

Once you have the vision that excites you and your team, begin to identify the strategies over time to get there. Make it a three-year horizon. As you begin your 2010 planning, review and prioritize these strategies and build in next year’s strategies into your actual business plan.

Finally, identify the barriers to achieving those strategies, specify how you will overcome each and then commit to overcoming them in 2010.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Positioning Your Agency for 2010 Success -- Part 1

What’s the old saying – the early bird catches the worm? I think it’s true for agencies too.

Now is the time when many forward-thinking firms are beginning to start their planning for 2010. I’ve already begun to work with firms on their next year’s plan.

I am going to give you six key strategies that will guarantee you a successful 2010 (full disclosure: I cannot fix the economy but I am confident it is improving) and here’s the first.

Strategy 1: Critically Assess 2009

It is extremely important that before you start your 2010 planning you take a critical assessment of 2009. Put the economic issues aside for this. What did you learn about your agency?

Review the following:

Time management and staff billability. Are you meeting industry benchmarks? Are you spending your time working on your business not just in your business? Where can you be morfe efficient? What did you neglect in 2009 that you won;t tolerate in 2010?

Process improvement. Where can you improve your internal processes? What's not working well?

Financial data. Are you getting the right reports to help you understand your P&L, running rates, monthly revenue against budget, accounts receivables, etc?

Standards of excellence. Do you have them – both internal and external? Does your staff adhere to them? What must you do differently in 2010 to make these standards the basic fabric of your business?

Management team. Are you satisfied with their performance? Do you need to make changes? Does the team really help you run your agency effectively? What do you need them to do differently next year?

Staffing. Where do you need to upgrade staff? What new positions might you need to establish?

Services. What new services, capabilities, or expertise do you need to add to keep your firm on the forefront of trends in your business or improve your offering to clients?

Marketing and business development. How effective was your agency marketing and business development programs? What do you need to do to improve them?

Don’t drink your own Kool Aid! Look at these and other issues with a critical eye as you start to plan for a great 2010.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Threat or Opportunity? The Southwest Emerging Media Model

I read a post in about the success of Southwest Airlines’ social media efforts. It sparked a question: is this a threat to the growing revenue potential that agencies see in social media?

SW started a blog in 2006 called “Its Nuts About Southwest” to bring customers and the airline closer together. The success of the blog broadened the company’s social media efforts and they named a Manager of Emerging Media, Paula Berg, to oversee their efforts.

But here are the paragraphs that sparked my question:

“As the blog evolved, so did the roles of Berg and her colleagues. When Berg started working on the site she was part of the company’s public relations team. Her co-manager, Brian Lusk, was a corporate editor in the company’s executive office. Soon after the airline began experimenting with Twitter and other social media tools, it moved Berg and three of her colleagues into a new Emerging Media department.

There Berg’s six-person team (two new employees joined it last November) maintains a Twitter feed, Facebook fan site, Flickr group and YouTube channel. Each tool is overseen by a single team member and geared to reach a slightly different audience. “

I wonder, is the emerging (read social) media department separate from the public relations department? It sounds that way. Could this be a trend in other corporations where conversations and connections with the consumer or end user are critical to sales and reputation? And, if so, will it require PR agencies to build new relationships not only with public relations, marketing, top management and finance, but also with social media departments who might logically hire (if they need to) social media agencies and let the PR department deal with the PR agency?

Or, does this signal another reason why it is so important for the traditional PR firm to reinvent itself, and why positioning and marketing an agency will be even more critical in the future?

Monday, August 10, 2009

Your Personal Brand vs. Your Agency Brand

Ok, we all have read countless stories on the importance of building a brand via social media channels if you are on your own – consultant, sole practitioner, entrepreneur, or the like. You know most of the popular tools. One of the most effective tools in personal brand building is your own blog.

Yet, I'm puzzled by the conflict that some agency owners have about creating a personal blog vs. creating a corporate blog under the agency name. Why the conflict? Take a look at Richard Edelman’s popular 6 A.M. blog. or Peppercom’s Steve Cody’s

Clearly these blogs contain Richard’s and Steve’s viewpoints, interviews, comments, etc. on topics of interest to business people. What they also contain are links and references to their agencies.

Agency heads complain about how difficult it is to distinguish their firm from competitors. In truth many agencies look and sound alike. So, with the possibility of a well-promoted and distributed blog as a key part of an agency’s visibility program – what’s the problem?

Here’s what I often hear: “I’m not sure what I could (should) write about.” I have rarely met a PR person who didn’t have something to say about just about everything. I think it is more about “risk.”

Putting yourself “out there” in a way that calls attention to who you are and what you have to say is uncomfortable to many who are used to being behind the scenes and letting their clients shine.
In today’s highly competitive agency environment, it’s time to get over your “fear.” You have much to say – start saying it.

Thought leadership is one of the best, yet least practiced ways of creating agency reputation, recognition, and referrals – the three “R’s” that all businesses crave.

So start planning your thought leadership program now and follow that with your own blog that carries your message to the prospects you want to reach.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

If Your Agency is Three Years Old or Less ...

I find that many new agencies start and exist in their “formative years” (say 2-3 years old) by operating by the “seat of their pants.” Often I’m told, “We don’t know what we don’t know.”

Typically that’s because the owners grew up (as we all did) as account people with little or no experience running a business.

Many of these firms are doing well or at least holding their own – even in the recession. However, this is a critical time for newer firms.

As we begin to pull out of the recession, more established agencies will reap the benefits of longevity, reputation, vision, and an awareness of who they are and what they do well.

Newer firms normally don’t have the luxury of brand reputation or brand recognition and often they have no clear direction or vision of the kind of firm they want to become nor of the niches in which they need to specialize. Specialization helps builds reputation, and determining where and how to specialize is one of the most difficult decisions facing a young firm.

So what do new firms need to do to remain or become competitive? Here are four tips:

1. Create a vision of the firm you want to become (to look like) over the next three years. This vision will then lead to the strategies to help you get there. But, be sure to also identify the barriers to success and how you will overcome those barriers.

2. Be brutally honest with yourselves about what you do well and for whom. Decide what your agency will focus on. It could be a functional skill (e.g., crisis communications) or it could be an industry niche (e.g., luxury goods). It’s OK to have 2-4 specialties, but not seven or eight.

3. Identify your ideal client. Where have you been really successful? Profile that ideal client (what factors made it successful?) and resist the temptation (read money) to take business that doesn’t meet your ideal client profile.

4. Build a marketing program around your wisdom and knowledge. What do you stand for? Where is your thought leadership? If you don’t know, then think long and hard. Gaining recognition in the long haul comes from your clients and the work you do. But, for newer firms, getting those great clients will come from building a reputation based on what you stand for. That’s thought leadership.

There will great opportunities for communications firms in the near future. If you are new, if you have been successful, congratulations. Now the real work starts.

Friday, June 26, 2009

When Growth Stalls -- Read About It

At the recent PRSA Counselors Academy Conference in June, I heard Steve McKee speak about what happens when a fast-growing business (his own advertising agency) stops growing.

Steve’s own company problems led to two research studies and ultimately a great business book called “When Growth Stalls”, subtitled How it Happens, Why You’re Stuck, & What to Do About it.

While external market factors – McKee calls them Market Tectonics – clearly can and affect the growth and health of a company (can anybody spell recession?), McKee’s research points out that external factors alone are rarely responsible for stalled growth.

Instead, his research identified four, what he calls, “subtle and highly destructive internal factors that conspire to keep companies down.” The four are:

• Lack of consensus among the management team

• Loss of focus
• Loss of nerve
• Marketing inconsistency

Lack of consensus among management is easy to understand. You and your partner(s) simply do not agree on direction, strategies, or actions. There is a loss of trust and maybe a loss of confidence. I have seen this almost destroy more than one agency.

Loss of focus often plagues agencies in recessions. Loss of focus does not mean not adding new services or even going after new markets. What it does mean is straying from the strength of the firm to pursue strategies or actions that distract management from what it does best.

Loss of nerve is an affliction that has plagued many a firm during this recession. McKee says that fear of taking a risk, resisting change, not investing in the business are all signs of loss of nerve. I have seen and spoken to agency heads that are almost paralyzed by economic uncertainty even though they know in their gut that things will be better. He goes on to say that loss of nerve is a common “wake-up call” but one that companies must heed to return to a growth mode.

Finally, marketing inconsistency. Pretty self-explanatory. Frankly most agencies don’t even have a real marketing plan to be inconsistent about. But, for the companies McKee researched, changing one’s marketing frequently is a sure sign of a company in trouble or looking for trouble.

There are plenty of lessons in McKee’s book for all leaders. It is well worth reading.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Traits of a Great Agency Leader: Part Two

Last week I posted three of the six traits that I have observed in great agency leaders. I asked the question then and it bears repeating: What are the behaviors that separate the great from the average? Can good CEOs become great? Can mediocre ones improve?

Here are traits 4-6. Comments and challenges are welcomed.

4. They live in the present but have a clear, compelling vision of the future -- they know exactly what kind of firm they want to become

• They have an unwavering focus and commitment to make the vision a reality.
• Their vision is a filter for decision-making. It simplifies and provides a strategic context for all their major decisions
• They are willing to take risks to achieve their vision

5. They are “star-crazed”
• They understand that a great leader needs great lieutenants not foot soldiers
• They invest in “stars”
• They don’t tolerate the “average”

6. They live by standards of excellence (external and internal)
• They set the standards
• They meet the standards

• They understand that standards of excellence are non-negotiable

In part three, I’ll show a simple scorecard to rate yourself as a leader.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Traits of a Great Agency Leader: Part One

As a former agency CEO who now advises CEOs and owners of public relations firms, I have observed great agency leaders, good ones, and some that are just mediocre. What are the behaviors that separate the great from the average? Can good CEOs become great? Can mediocre ones improve?

Here are three of the six traits that distinguish great agency leaders:

1. The “possibility” mindset
• They are committed to being great and wildly successful
• They always focus on the positive
• They understand that doubts will interfere with the outcome they want.
• Especially today, outstanding leaders think, act, and believe in abundance and prosperity. They are open to receiving it

2. Action-oriented
• They are doers – not just thinkers and talkers (motivate by actions not words)
• They are always moving their firm forward – not just treading water
• They work on their business, not just in their business
• They run their business like a business with an active business plans, marketing, business development and financial plans

3. Personal change agent (“If I am not part of the problem there is solution”)
• They recognize the need to change (awareness)
• They embrace the need to change (acceptance)
• They make changes in their own behavior (action)
• They invest in themselves and their firm

Test yourself. How do you rate against these first three traits?

Monday, May 18, 2009

Get Out of Your Comfort Zone

It’s rewarding when I hear clients repeating to me some of the suggestions, advice or phrases that I’ve used in my coaching and consulting sessions. At least it shows they are listening to some of the things I say.

The other day I was working with one of my individual clients, a person who has started his own business and I heard him say to me, “You know, I’ve got to start working more on my business rather than in my business.”

It is a phrase I use often with my clients because I see the positive results of this simple piece of advice often.

As the leader you have a choice each and every day, each and every hour.
That choice is simple: to work in your business or on your business. In the business means spending most of your time on client business – conference calls, account team meetings, attending client meetings, writing proposals, participating in or leading new business presentations, etc.

Working on your business means thinking about and doing things that move the firm towards its vision and your desired culture.

It’s not one or the other – it’s a combination of both. Too often, however, I find that most owners and CEOs spend the great majority of their time working in their business. I have one client where the CEO and COO are often 90-100% billable. That’s just too high. I have another client where the CEO is proud of the fact that he does no billable work. That’s just wrong – you never want lose touch with the work.

The reason you are more comfortable working in the business is simple: most people who run agencies mounted the promotional ladder in other firms. You like the client work. That’s why you stayed and that’s why you grew as practitioners. It’s your comfort zone. Now that you own or run an agency, it is still your comfort zone.

Working on your business, making tough decisions on investments or new hires, or new services takes you out of your comfort zone. It makes people nervous. Why? Because it often involves taking a risk.

Ultimately, how you spend your time as owner or CEO is totally up to you. It’s your choice. Remember, however, if you want to become a great leader and create a vibrant, sustainable business, getting out of your comfort zone and working on your business is a necessity.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Is Cutting Prices Smart Marketing?

Obviously the competitors for stressed out coffee drinkers think so. In the face of McDonald’s spending $100 million on a new marketing campaign touting the quality of its coffee at a more affordable price than its competitors, Starbucks announced it is cutting prices on some of its drinks and Dunkin' Donuts followed suit.

In an article, Jean-Pierre Dube, professor of marketing at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, said it is “extremely important” for McDonald’s to advertise lower prices during the recession because they are less expensive than others.

This brings up a question for me. Is it smart marketing for agencies to lower their prices and promote that to prospects?

Everyone knows it’s more competitive out there. Large firms are going after prospects they wouldn’t touch if times were good. Yet, large firms have a cost structure that makes it more difficult for them to change or lower billing rates and client fees. Smaller firms don’t necessarily have that problem. They can be more flexible and more nimble. And, they can emphasize lower fees in new business presentations. Despite what we would like to believe, many (good) clients initially buy on price and that’s even more true today.

Some will argue that lowering fees or reducing billing rates, or “giving work away” cheapens the value of that agencies bring to clients. They say once you lower costs you can’t raise them. I don’t buy into that philosophy.

If you can establish a price advantage over a competitor (and still make money) why not use this to win the business, develop a relationship and look to increase the scope of work (and fees) over time. Since many agencies increase their billing rates annually anyway, why can’t you lower them and then increase them in years to come?

I think you can. And it may help you win the business!

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Less = More = Opportunity

I hear from numerous agency owners who have reduced their workforce over the last several months that they feel they now have a stronger staff than ever before.

Could fewer staff mean a stronger staff? Absolutely.

I have always believed in the adage that great people create great organizations. Nowhere is that more true than in a “people” business like public relations.

Many smaller firms have reduced staff down to a core group of high performers. Larger firms have eliminated marginal people from account and practice groups. In both cases, the team that’s left primarily represents your “keepers”.

We are slowly emerging from this recession. As we do, firm owners have a great opportunity to add new strength to their agencies by beginning to look for that new “star” who may have gotten caught up in a layoff. They are out there.

Start looking for your next “star”. You don’t have to pull the trigger and hire just yet, but we all know how difficult it is to recruit when times are good. It’s a much better idea to recruit when times are tough.

Now is the time to start capitalizing on the opportunities to get your firm ready for the second half of the year and even 2010.

Make your strong staff even stronger with a smart hire.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Practice What You Preach

There have been countless articles, blogs, and speeches about the importance of companies maintaining an aggressive public relations program during this recession. They all emphasize the need to continue to “invest” in PR as a key element in an overall marketing program. And, they stress the importance of maintaining PR efforts over the long haul.

I have not seen many such proclamations about agencies needing to continue to “invest” in themselves, beyond the obvious need to market the firm to attract new business.

Independently owned firms in particular have a greater ability to “sacrifice” short-term financial goals for longer-term growth and healthier profits by remembering what made their firms grow and continuing to invest in these and other time-tested practices:

• Quarterly business and strategic planning with an eye to identifying and maximizing opportunities;

• Structured, facilitated management meetings to thoroughly discuss and solve key issues affecting the firm and develop new ideas for growth;

• Client surveys by qualified consultants to find out what your clients are really thinking and to identify opportunities that they may not share with your account teams;

• Revisiting your firm’s vision (or creating one) and the strategies to get there to provide a roadmap for the future;

• Rigorous account reviews to dissect relationship issues, brainstorm on opportunities, and review the quality of results;

• Training, skills development, and coaching for key executives to help hone skills, develop new ones and work on leadership and management issues

While stressing the value of maintaining long-term public relations efforts to clients and prospects, don’t forget to practice what you preach and invest for the long-term in your own firm.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

A Lesson from Our Last Recession – A Word to the Wise

There’s a new storm forming way out in the distance, and it will shake up firms that don’t prepare for it now. It will wreak havoc on client relationships, upset management structure, break up account teams, increase bottom-line pressure, and give CEOs, owners, and partners a royal pain.

Job switching, the inevitable curse of good times in the agency business, is developing ever so slowly. But don’t be fooled. It is inexorably moving closer, fueled by increasingly tiny (yet positive) signs that our economy is starting to move forward again. PR firms, while by no means out of the doldrums, are beginning to see more new business opportunities with decent, and in many cases, healthy budgets. Granted, these opportunities are more competitive than ever before (if that’s possible), but they are also more frequent.

And, as it continues to improve, those key managers, account directors, practice leaders, specialists, and other valued employees lucky enough to have kept their jobs through the recession will begin to develop a new sense of confidence that maybe now it is time to look for that next, better job.

Retaining employees, always a key need in good times, may be even more important now when times are bad.

In today’s agencies, employees are asked to work longer hours, handle more business per staffer than ever before, develop new business (a task many never dealt with before), supervise juniors without proper training, take on new responsibilities for which they are unprepared, and handle less than “glamorous” clients that 18 months ago the agency would never have even considered.

Tempers flare faster today, job frustration is higher than ever, and the malaise that has affected agencies over the past year — as revenues plummeted and profits remained flat or slid downward — continues unabated in many firms, large and small.

Now is the time for agency management to take a new look at their organizations and figure out how to repair the fragile employee contracts that are certainly cracked in many cases, if not broken altogether. With a little thought, sensitivity, and some solid planning, agency management can begin to identify and start work on changing attitudes and cementing their relationships with their own staffs. But they had better start working fast.

Farsighted managers and owners are communicating more with employees to really understand their feelings and needs. Some are beginning to put into place measures that they hope will, in part, compensate for the dissatisfaction.

Those were excerpts from an article I wrote for PRWeek in July 2002. Are things any different today?

A tough economy only heightens the need to retain your best employees.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Opportunity Knocking ... If You Have the Stomach

The New Yorker ran a great piece on capitalizing on a recession environment. The writer, James Surowiecki, noted that most companies “hunker down, cut spending, and wait for good times to return."

He writes, "They do all this to preserve what they have. But there’s a trade-off: numerous studies have shown that companies that keep spending on acquisition, advertising, and R. & D. during recessions do significantly better than those which make big cuts.”

But, he cautions, you have to be able to withstand and understand the vagaries of risk and uncertainty.

“Risk describes a situation where you have a sense of the range and likelihood of possible outcomes. Uncertainty describes a situation where it’s not even clear what might happen, let alone how likely the possible outcomes are. Uncertainty is always a part of business, but in a recession it dominates everything else. So it’s natural to focus on what you can control: minimizing losses and improving short-term results." For most that means cutting costs.

He cites academics Peter Dickson and Joseph Giglierano, who have argued that companies have to worry about two kinds of failure: “sinking the boat” (wrecking the company by making a bad bet) or “missing the boat” (letting a great opportunity pass).

Many agency owners are far more worried about sinking the boat than about missing it. And, perhaps they should be. But, are they overlooking opportunities to edge out in front of their competition?

Some agencies seem to have the “stomach” for the uncertainty of today. I’ve recently read about agency acquisitions; new hires who bring a new service offering (e.g. word-of-mouth); investing in PR network memberships; starting new divisions and practices; creating new web sites and new digital offerings; and launching new advertising and marketing initiatives. These firms are investing in themselves and their future.

None of these investments (read “risks” because they all cost money) were made by large firms. Indeed most are small to mid-size agencies.

It's smart to be profit driven. But agencies that live and measure success solely by the bottom line will have considerable difficulty investing today as they see their margins shrinking. Yet these firms run the risk of being left behind by some of the more aggressive competitors who recognize the opportunities – and go for it. They will accept break-even or perhaps a small loss or gain today for greater revenue and profit tomorrow.

Food for thought?

Monday, April 6, 2009

It's All About You

For me, the word commitment carries only one definition. It means I will do it. Not I’ll try, but I will do it.

It bears repeating that great leaders create great agencies. Those of us who grew up in an age when small firms became large, great firms observed leaders like Harold Burson, John Hill, Daniel Edelman, John Graham, Bill Ruder and David Finn, and many others. These men understood the importance of leadership and, for the most part, practiced it religiously. They created great firms.

While they were all different individuals, they had at least one trait in common: they were all committed to creating great agencies.

One thing that has hit home to me as I have observed firms and top management is that CEOs (or agency owners) don’t seem to understand their own importance to the growth, development, and health of their agency. Many simply don’t get it and try to deflect the responsibility (or the credit) on to others. In some cases this is admirable – but misguided.

This is not about ego or arrogance. This is about the simple truth that great leaders create great agencies because they commit to doing it and they will not tolerate failure.

Start by affirming your commitment to yourself and your firm: “I am creating a great agency, one that attracts great clients and great people. I am committing to and focusing my efforts on doing everything I need to do to achieve greatness.”

Notice the use of the present tense – a powerful part of the affirmation process and a key element in visioning your success.

As you go about your day observe yourself and your direct reports. How many times do you follow through on your daily “commitments”; how many times do your people follow through? Are you tolerant of those who try but rarely commit? If so, why?

Is personal commitment one of your “Standards of Excellence”? It needs to be if you are going to create a great firm.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The "Attractive " Agency

I have a theory and a question.

Most people have heard of The Law of Attraction. Essentially, it says that whatever you focus on in life you will draw or attract to you. Your thought process is like a magnet.

If you focus on the negative -- lack, limitation and scarcity -- that is what you’ll get. If you worry about the next client who will cut the budget or put the agency on hold – that’s what will happen.

Conversely, if you believe (truly believe) in abundance and prosperity you will attract abundance and prosperity. If you focus on the next client you will win, rather than the next client you’ll lose – guess what? You will acquire a new piece of business or increase business from one of your existing clients.

Now, think about “attractive” people. They draw to them others who want what they have. And, they do it easily, seemingly with little effort. They are “magnetic”. Attraction is success without striving.

So, my theory is that there can be such a thing as an “attractive agency” – an agency that attracts to it their ideal clients, their ideal people, and their ideal reputation -- an agency that succeeds without striving, even in tough times.

An attractive agency

  • Over-responds to every problem and turns every event into an opportunity
  • Under-promises and over delivers – always
  • Masters its craft, innovates for sheer joy, invents new ways to work
  • Derives its strength from who it is rather than what it does
  • Is unconditionally constructive and sees perfection not problems in staff and client
Pie in the sky? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Any attractive agencies out there?

Monday, March 16, 2009

March "Gladness"

For basketball junkies, March is Nirvana. Upsets, David vs. Goliath, buzzer beaters, the Final Four. All rolled up into one month of March madness.

For PR agency execs, March madness takes on a different meaning. It is the end of the first quarter and that means 1st quarter P&L’s and the sobering reality of a slow start to 2009. But, don’t be mad. Instead be glad.

If you have already pared staffs (or are about to), cut salaries, and reduced discretionary spending -- if you’ve managed your financials well -- your firm should be poised to operate the remainder of the year at least break-even and hopefully eking out a small profit. That’s something for which to be glad.

Another bit of gladness is the small signal that the stock market may be on the verge of a little bit of recovery. Good news for all us and for our clients.

Finally, if you believe the notion of the media’s role in creating a self-fulfilling prophesy, I have seen some positive news recently that suggests the recession may end more quickly than once imagined.

We’re clearly not out of the woods, but March “gladness” is a lot better to contemplate than March madness.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Good to Great to Gone

The other day I sat in the examining room of a physician and picked up the only magazine in the room. It was the May 2008 FORTUNE 500 issue. In it was an article called “The Secret of Enduring Greatness” by Jim Collins of “Good to Great” fame.

Some facts are eye-openers and offer lessons for agency and other business leaders.
• Of the 500 companies on the original Fortune 500 list in 1955 only 71 remain.
• Nearly 2000 companies have appeared on the list and most are long gone.
• Some of the most powerful companies (Apple, Microsoft, Google) emerged from new technologies replacing old-line technologies
• Some of the best-known, traditional companies are no longer in existence.

These facts boost the argument that there is no such thing anymore as “enduring greatness.” But, Collins argues differently and points to a number of companies – P&G, GE, Nucor, Xerox, Wal-Mart (we all can name others) – that have endured and continue to be great.

He writes, “Whether you prevail, or fail, endure or die, whether you make it onto the Fortune 500, and whether you stay there, depends more on what you do to yourself than on what the world does to you.”

He goes on to say, that “throughout history the greatest companies have used adverse times to their advantage … The best corporate leaders never point out the window to blame external conditions; they look in the mirror and say we are responsible for our results.”

I’ll bet Mr. Collins shares that view even today.

We know that during the last recession of 2001-2002 a number of agencies departed this earth. Probably a few of them were really good, maybe some in their space were even great. Today they’re gone.

Great leaders create great agencies. They innovate, they invest, they take risks, they plan, and they create – even in the hardest of times.

Competition has never been fiercer. Now is the time to re-commit to being great – because “good” just won’t make it today.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Today's Fear Factor

Your employees are afraid. Fear is one of the most understandable emotions when times are tough, when they see colleagues being laid off, when they hear about budget cuts, clients leaving, and salary freezes.

Fear for one’s job leads to one of two behaviors: a) head down, keep to yourself, no boat-rocking, do your work and go home; or b) new energy, volunteering for assignments, idea-generation, visible activity, worry about productivity.

In the first case, the thinking goes, “if I’m not visible, maybe I can hide and escape the next round of layoffs.” Frankly, in most firms (even the largest) people cannot hide; they should not even try. These are exactly the people who will be the first to go.

In the second case, their fear stimulates activity. They want to be more valuable so you “cannot” let them go. And, more valuable to them means more visibility, asking for work, suggesting new ideas, doing their own new business prospecting, being highly billable, etc.

Some of these people have awakened too late and it’s a shame that it takes “fear” to motivate them. You’ll easily notice these new high-energy people. This will be new behavior for them.

Others have always behaved like this. They are the positive performers. They are normally fully billable, people want to work with them, clients value them, they attract and help win business; they are your stars.

But, recognize that your “stars” are fearful too. While they know they doing a good job, they wonder if that will be enough.

Everyone needs to be acknowledged for how they are feeling. But your stars need more. They need encouragement, positive reinforcement and a true understanding of their role and future in the organization. When times improve – as they will – these people will be most vulnerable to the lure of the new job. You must retain your stars to grow and prosper.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Looking at the Bigger Picture -- A Real-Life Fable

Once there was a client who hired an agency of record, which developed a PR program that called for lots of writing for the CEO. Now the writing was not bad – it just wasn’t the way the CEO liked it.This happens all the time and, with the help of the CEO and the prime client contact, the agency usually figures it out.

In my fable, however, it turns out that the CEO had worked with a public relations director in a previous job for 10 years. Now, that PR director was out of work and freelancing. Guess to whom he turned for work? And guess what the CEO did? Started giving him the writing assignments the agency was getting wrong. The agency complained to the client contact who, in the inimitable fashion of many clients, said, “you work it out.”

Now if times were flush, most agencies would confront the client with “that is not how you treat an agency of record”. The freelancer would probably go away and everyone would live happily ever after. And, if the client refused, the agency would terminate the relationship and focus on winning the next piece of business.

But, times are not flush and priority #1 is the care and feeding of your current clients. So the agency stepped back, thought about the bigger picture and came up with a creative solution. The AS contacted the freelancer, who, as it turns out, had significant experience in a segment the agency was trying to crack, but was limited in what he could do because he was a one-man band.

The agency created an alliance with the writer agreed that he should continue to write for the CEO in return for entrée into important new prospects under a shared revenue scheme.
It was a win-win for everyone. The client got the writer it wanted; the agency kept the rest of the business and won new business; and the freelancer boosted his revenue and had an agency at his back for support.

Talk about turning a negative into a positive!
Sounds like media training 101. Instead, it’s a way of looking at a situation that on the surface “sounds” like a problem. But, in reality represents an opportunity.

There are talented people who have started their own agencies or freelance business. They may need your support and you may need their talent and their contacts.

Today, look at the bigger picture.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Let's Give Thanks

I love the Oscars. The production, the glamour, the stars, the music. But, most of all I love the heartfelt thanks that each award winner has for those who made it possible.

Last night Hollywood paused and acknowledged and paid tribute to the excellence of its personnel. Excellence today and excellence of yesterday. I saw admiration, awe, love, homage, reverence, and respect.

For all of us caught up in the economic crisis, for all of us who are experiencing tough times, perhaps we too should pause from our daily trials of P&L management, new business proposals and client trauma and give thanks to our personnel.

There are great and wonderful people who toil in our PR agencies and client corporate departments. Pay them the respect and admiration they deserve. They are helping to keep our industry vibrant, innovative and exciting.

Thank your employees. Thank them for their hard work, their commitment, their dedication. And, while you’re at it, thank those who came before you. The great leaders who built great firms and paved the way for all of us to work in a field that we love.

We work in a wonderful industry, no matter what others may say. It’s time we acknowledged that publicly and not take a back seat to anybody.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Cookie Cutter Doesn't Cut It

I've read lots of agency new business proposals. Especially today, but even when business is robust, cookie cutter proposals won’t win.

Sounds obvious, but you would be surprised at the number of firms that simply cut and paste from one proposal to another and then offer the proposal as new, original, and even strategic thinking. Anyone see yourself in this picture?

Sure you can fool some prospects with this kind of approach, and you’ll even win some new accounts, but you will not win the ones you truly want – those ideal, good names, potentially high budget clients that are crucial to an agency’s reputation.
The excuse I often hear is that “we didn’t have the time to put something together from scratch.” That’s baloney. You chose not to make the time.

If you have to submit a new business proposal in writing, without the benefit of an in-person presentation, keep in mind the following suggestions:

1. Identify the situation or challenges the prospect faces. Analyze that situation. What does it suggest? How has it influenced your proposal?
2. Limit your objectives to a few that can be "measured" and relate directly back to the situation. Many "objectives" I read are really strategies or in some cases even tactics. They don't belong in this section.
3. Prioritize the key audiences. Prioritize is the key word. Explain why.
4. Consider a theme that under which all communication activities relate.
Prioritize strategies. These are “hows” – how we will achieve the objectives.
6. Describe and explain the tactics – what we are going to do. Don't assume PR sophistication.
Be flexible with your budget and termination terms -- especially today when prospects are reluctant to make long-term commitments.
8. Tell the prospect what the program will accomplish.
If you don't have to send it by email don't. Consider "packaging" the proposal creatively and either delivering it in person or by messenger/courier. It will make an impression and set you apart from every other firm that simply emails in the PowerPoint.

New business is the lifeblood of any agency. Make the time, educate your staff, and treat each proposal as if it is the only one that mattered.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Is There a "You" in Sea Gull?

I was once hired by an agency CEO to interview all members of the firm (there were about 12 or so) to get a sense of what the firm was doing right and wrong.

As part of the audit, the CEO wanted to know what the staff thought of him and how he ran the firm.
I don’t remember all the comments but it was a pretty dreadful report. One comment did stick in my mind, though. “Our CEO is like a sea gull,” one person said. “He swoops in, shits all over us, and then flies away leaving us to clean up the mess.”

I never forgot that comment and have talked about sea gulls with several client CEOs. "Sea gullian" behavior is destructive and non-productive. It turns off the staff, rarely creates positive learning and often the end product is flawed because the staffer has little clue to what the sea gull wants him or her to do.

I know one CEO who put up a picture of a sea gull on her computer as a reminder of what not to do. Whatever works.

Are there any sea gulls in your firm? Are you a sea gull?

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

If You Build It They Will Come

When you build a home, redecorate your house, or add a garden, where do you start? You start with a vision of what the home, garden, or room will look like. Often you hire a professional to help you shape your vision – an architect, landscaper, or decorator.

So why don’t many of you look at your business that way? All of you who started an agency had a vision when you began your business. You spoke about that vision to anyone who would listen. You probably hired your first employee or found a partner because they believed in your vision. So, what happened to that vision?

For many of you today, your vision is win more business, keep your clients, stay alive!
That’s not bad thinking. It’s just limited thinking. I’m a big believer in visions. I’ve seen them work in my own life and I have seen my clients prosper because they took the time to step back and take a new look at who they are and what they wanted to become.

This step – this foundation of a great agency and hallmark of a great leader – is even more critical today. Tough economic times give you the opportunity to take a step back and re-evaluate everything about your firm – processes, staff, ideal client, services, quality control and, yes, also your vision of what kind firm is possible two even three years down the road.

I’ll talk more about visions in future posts. But, don’t underestimate the power of a vision to attract clients and “stars” – and what agency couldn’t use more of both.

Use this time wisely and it will pay dividends you cannot even imagine.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Agency Lessions from the Arizona Cardinals

Growing up in NY I was a NY sports fan – NY baseball Giants (before they absconded to SF), then the Mets, also the Knicks and Jets. Now that I have lived in Scottsdale, AZ for the last 5-1/2 years, I’ve become attached to the Suns, Diamondbacks and, of course, the Arizona Cardinals.
After five years of watching frustrating futility, the Cardinals (who hadn’t won a championship in 60 years) reached and almost won the 2009 Super Bowl. So, what can we learn from this stunning turnaround?

1. It started with leadership. Ken Whisenhunt, the second year coach, and his group of coaches created a new culture in the Cardinals organization. It was a culture built on discipline and commitment. For Whiz, nothing but the best would do. He also knew he could not do it alone. So he recruited a group of outstanding coaches – leaders in their own right – to form his leadership team.

2. Their leader had a vision. The coach had a vision of the success he truly desired to achieve. It wasn’t so much the Super Bowl, as it was a vision of a truly outstanding football team with pride, teamwork and a focus on winning.

3. Their leader truly believed. When he took the job, Whisenhunt was able to persuade the team that no matter what had happened in the past, he believed in the team’s ability to become successful. His belief was unwavering.

4. Their leader lived in the present. While the media (national and local) delighted in pointing to all the Cardinals problems in the first year of Whisenhunt’s reign, the coach firmly refused to be drawn into the debate. He firmly focused on the next day, the next practice, the next game.

5. Their leader was positive when times were bad. This season, when they started well, then were routed by several teams (“the same old Cardinals!”), the coach maintained his belief that things would work out, the team was good, and the foundation he built was sound. The team would return to its winning ways. The rest, as they say is history.

Any lessons here, agency leaders?

Thursday, February 5, 2009

When Will It End?

Welcome to PR Coach -- my thoughts, opinions and advice on issues important to agency leaders. I’ll try to make this helpful and practical based on my years in agency leadership and my current role as an advisor to public relations and integrated communications firms across the country.

I certainly welcome your comments (pro and con); questions, ideas, and tips for agency heads and others in senior management as well as those of you who may be considering starting your own agency business.

When will it end? That’s the question that many agency heads are asking themselves. It’s not a bad question, but I think it’s the wrong question, a question borne from the frustration that many of you are feeling. Your clients are cutting or terminating budgets and you are laying off employees, and reducing or eliminating marketing, training, and other expenditures.

This recession will end as it began – prior to any of us knowing it. But, we’ll feel it. Clients will be more positive and open to new ideas, new business activity (yes, there is plenty of business out there) will pick up. The media will become more positive. The country’s mood will be begin to lighten.

The better question today is how can we use this time to make us stronger when business does begin to pick up?

It is a big question and there isn’t just one answer. I’ll be addressing this question in future blogs. For now, a big part of what agency heads can do is sustain an attitude of abundance and prosperity, not fear. When you operate from fear you operate by necessity from a mindset of scarcity and limitation. And, if that’s the way you think that’s what you’ll get. If you operate from a mindset of abundance you will get abundance. I’m not sure why this works. I do know it does work and I have numerous examples from both my own life and those of my clients.

So put aside doom and gloom. Think abundance; stabilize your finances; accelerate your business development and marketing and take care of your current clients.

This too shall pass.