Shaping an Agency, Chapter One

Chapter One—A New Beginning

Brian was probably thinking this was a setup. We had just been swapping Skype messages around the idea that service companies should strive to be “everything to somebody,” as opposed to “something for everybody.” And then the phone rang. It was Grant at ATX.

“Ty, what’s new in your world?”  I always liked hearing from Grant. Great guy to work with, and his company seemed to always be growing, as if everything they touched turned into marketplace gold.  Grant and his colleagues had a really open mindset most of the time, with an admirable willingness to push their thinking on design and branding, two areas where Brian and I had worked with them in the past. 

“You tell me, Grant—just rocking and rolling up here in the Triangle.”

“Man, everything’s going really well, sales are up again this year.”  I could tell he was driving.

“That’s great to hear!  Are you on your way somewhere?”

“Well, figuratively and literally, Ty,” Grant said. “This company is going places, and you’ve been responsible for some of the things that have helped us on this path.  And, by the way, I’m on the way to fire my agency.”

Agency?  I had always thought that Grant and ATX did everything in-house, or had just used outsiders for really light work, as we had done on some mailers and website messaging.  Turns out I was right, but not for the right reason.

“Yeah, I’m just not getting good service. The relationship boils down like this—they just remind me of all the problems that I already know I have, and then they create action plans that mostly center around things for me to do.”

“Kinda the old consulting model,” I chimed in. “Let me tell you how you’re screwing up, but you figure out what you’re going to do about it. And, oh, by the way, here’s my bill.”

“Ha-ha!  Yeah, man, that it!  And then, they can’t even accomplish the scrap work they leave for themselves in a timely fashion.  They take on what I think are little things—shooting fish in a barrel-type stuff like press releases and ad placements.”

Grant cleared his throat—I could tell he was getting geared up just talking about this subject. “Well, it’s just that we need to do so much more.  You know us at ATX—we don’t ever stop coming up with ideas, and we just need somebody to execute. It’s just hard finding somebody to help—somebody who actually wants to get in there and work with you.  People just want your check, and then they get to it when they get to it, or I just end up doing it myself, or it goes unfinished. I know I ramble, but it’s just a bunch of bull, man.”

I could sense he was starting to get down on himself, just for hiring these people, so I thought I’d get him excited again, talking about ideas.  “So what else have you been thinking about?”

“Well, lots of things. We’ve noticed that a lot of our customers, channel partners, and competitors are really out there on social media. I know there are so many tangible benefits—like driving customers your way instead of to the competition—and intangible things like just the motivation your own employees see when they perceive their company is really going places. This type of stuff says so much more to them than even a balance sheet or a performance bonus sometimes.”

This is what I loved about Grant—when he gets something, he really gets it on a lot of levels.

“I remembered that you and your company were particularly savvy with this kind of thing. I read your blog posts and keep up with you on Facebook, although I’m not much for LinkedIn and don’t know a tweet from a hole in the ground,” Grant said with a hearty laugh.

I couldn’t help but laugh myself. “That makes me proud, that you’re enjoying what we do on social media and the blog. We’ve made a real commitment to that—it’s very difficult to keep that commitment, and Brian and I have worked very hard—it’s a pretty intense, but really rewarding collaboration—to keep consistent, relevant content out there.  There’s no mystery to it, really—we just create a plan and execute—just like you do with all of your sales guys and manufacturing folk at ATX.”

“I like it—I like it a lot.” Grant was excited again.  “Can you create a plan for us—we really need to get some things done around here. I’m continuing my advertising, and of course there’s all the trade shows we do. But what I need—what this company really needs—is a full-on, integrated communications plan. I know you guys always deliver within the budget and on-time—that’s part of the reason I called you and not another agency.  When you did the branding and messaging work for us last year, you delivered great quality, came in under budget, and it was just fun to work with you. Plus, we ended up using several of the cutting-room floor ideas for other campaigns—you don’t see that level of quality too often. I just need you to figure out how we might be able to work with you on something like this, if you’re interested.”

Were we interested?  That’s what I asked Brian on Skype, and I almost knew what he’d say.

“Well, Ty, we know we love working with these guys. That mailer project was a lot of fun, they loved our work, and they had an awesome collaborative spirit.  And we know we’re good at design and content—the music and lyrics of marketing, because we’ve done it for ourselves for so long.  Eating our own dog food and people liking the taste of it goes a long way, even when our portfolio is more skewed to industrial design and other aspects of branding and marketing. And we’ve done enough of this for clients that we know we can trust our process and vision to Grant and take that relationship to an even better place.”

I needed to make sure Brian really understood the challenge. “But what they want here is an agency agreement, where we’d be their go-to people for a plan, a monthly engagement over the long haul.  To me, it compares with what we do for ourselves, and a bit like some of the design engagements we have, where we take companies from stage to stage and then repeat for new products.” 

“Well, even though ATX isn’t what you’d call a household name, like Coke or something, the challenge here is translating our technical expertise—our social media and content know-how—in the service of a brand much bigger than our own,” said Brian.  “I know we’ve done some pieces—mailers, logos, trade show messaging, and collateral—but this will take some real digging so that we can really capture that brand’s voice for ongoing evangelism. The more I think about this, the more complicated it gets in my mind.” 

I had seen this pattern in Brian’s thinking before—he likes to build ideas up before he distills them down to the simple tactics needed to complete a sophisticated, worthy strategy. I guess you could say that instead of being a linear thinker, that Brian thinks along an arc. And he usually does a good job of not turning that arc into a rollercoaster. “Let’s spend the next few days doing a lot of thinking and even more research—let’s take a look at what people in their industry are doing and see if we can provide some context for Grant when we call him next week.”

“I like your thinking—what else do you think we could bring to the mix?” Brian asked.  “If we get in there and really show Grant the possibilities of working with us and what it could do for the ATX brand, how can we really make sure that this relationship gets off to the right start?  He’s a great partner—at least on the limited engagements we’ve had. But this is a different animal, and you know the crazy level of responsibility he has in that organization.”

Sometimes, a great question was all I needed. “Basecamp.”