Should You Have a Business Manager?
By Mike Carlton
A Simple Business
The agency business has always been pretty simple. You get clients. You do great work that moves their audience. You bill them. They pay you. And, everybodyís happy. While there are lots of subtle variations to this equation, it has never been very complicated. Until now.
Itís a new world. Agencies are being besieged by complexity. It is coming from all directions. There is more change confronting the agency business today than any of us have ever seen. And, it is likely to get worse before it gets better.
Today, itís harder than ever to get clients. Itís harder than ever to do great work. Itís harder than ever to build partnering relationships with clients. Itís harder than ever to keep clients. Itís harder than ever to differentiate your agency in its marketplace. And, itís harder than ever to make money.
Wow! What happened? Whatís going on? And, what can you do about it?
A Model in Decline
Simply put, the traditional agency business model doesnít work the way it used to. The market has shifted. And, to remain relevant, agencies need to shift, too.
There is no question that the consumer has moved well beyond a primary reliance on print and TV as her primary information and entertainment sources. Consumersí commercial decisions are being based on information and experiences from all kinds of media. They are inviting marketers to connect with them in a myriad of new ways. Some of it social. Some of it one-to-one dialogic. Some of it experiential. Some of it just plain cultural buzz. Yet many agencies seem to be mired in the 30 second spot/colorful ad business.
A former president of Coca-Cola said it best. ďThe magnitude and urgency of change isnít evolutionary Ė itís transformational. Agencies need to rethink the core assumptions and practices of their current business models.Ē
And more. Hardly a week goes by without the trade press reporting other industry seers questioning the business model agencies are following.
OK, Just What is a Business Model?
A business model is the way in which the agency relates to its clients, the services it provides and the way it gets paid for those services.
A Look Back
In the historic agency business model, the agency created ads or commercials and got paid a media commission for running them. That was a good model in that if the ad or commercial worked in the marketplace, the client kept running it, and the agency got paid continuing commissions that were a lot like residuals. And, if the ad didnít work, the client stopped running it and the agency didnít get paid any more until they came up with a new, and presumably more effective, ad.
Very simple. Very easy. And, very fair.
But the commission system had it limitations. It did not work well on non-media related activities. And, the size of the media budget dictated the level of agency involvement. So marketers and agencies groped for a better model.
As the commission system declined, agencies moved primarily to hourly charge business models. These were more appropriate as agencies expanded their range of services into non-media activities, which were not commissionable.
From an economic standpoint, hourly charges protected the agency on the downside, but provided little reward on the upside. And, the agency received the same compensation for effective work as it did for ineffective work.
Also, balancing internal time resources became much more complicated, and more difficult. An agency could not sell more time than its staff had available, but if client demand faltered, it could have a lot of un-bought time on its hands.
And worse yet, this model made it appear that the agency was just selling stuff at hourly charges, and was no longer as much of a partner as before. Vendor mentality began creeping into the relationship. Stuff overwhelmed ideas.
All the while, an expanded array of communications avenues was becoming available with which to reach the clientís audience.
The hourly charge for projects model has partially evolved into the fee for services model, which while still hourly cost-based can treat the client much more holistically. In effect, the fee system could allow the agency to become media agnostic, so that all kinds of new avenues of communications could be opened with the clientís audience.
While there has been considerable experimentation with compensation systems that reward the agency for effectiveness in the clientís marketplace; application of these has been limited. They tend to falter on the details of how success is measured and how the agency is rewarded. Thus, pay for performance systems have generally only been adopted by the more sophisticated marketers.
The Core of the Business Model Issue
With all this change, many of the business models currently used by individual agencies have been arrived at almost by accident. They are often the product of reactive client situations, rather than thoughtful proactive approaches. As such, it is not uncommon to see two glaring weaknesses in them:
1. They Restrict Innovation
The consumer is accessible through more avenues than ever. And clients are expecting agencies to lead in the use of these new avenues. Yet, many agencies do not have business models in which they can be fairly compensated using these new avenues. So, as a result, they fall back on the security of using those they are most familiar with, and know they can make money at. Thus, the 30 second spot / colorful ad rut.
2. There is Little Reward for Outstanding Work
The client receives a fundamental economic benefit from creative leverage. A great idea moves an audience more that an average idea. And, clients want great ideas. But only the audience can determine the value of a great idea, and only then by their behavior in the marketplace. Yet, most agencies get paid the same for an average idea as they do for a great one.
These business model weaknesses have led clients to commoditize what agencies offer. This falsely assumes that all talent is equal, and that all ideas have the same leverage in the marketplace. A sure recipe for mediocrity.
And on the agency side, these business model weaknesses breed caution and conservatism. Safety trumps innovation. Surely not the best way to get great ideas. Or to win hearts and minds in the clientís marketplace.
Make no mistake. There is probably not one ďmagic bulletĒ agency business model. But rather, a wide array of sub-models, each tailored to the needs of individual clients. This is mass customization of the agencyís master model.
In this kind of environment, continuing thoughtful exploration of better agency business models Ė each one unique to the needs of each individual client - is obviously called for. But unfortunately, seldom done.
Itís Hard to Build a Fire House When You Are Always Putting Out Fires
Many agency leaders understand that things arenít working the way they should. But, they are almost overwhelmingly engrossed in urgent day-to-day issues. About clients. About new business. About people. About their product. About money.
When life is like this, it is very difficult to focus on the strategic issues of the agencyís business model. As a result, serious business model thinking gets pushed to tomorrow. And then tomorrow, it gets pushed back again. And when it is done, it takes on a patch-work quality. This is clearly a case of the urgent continually preempting the important.
The gut issue is that while agency leadership is busy minding the urgent, no one is minding the shop!
To be successful today, agencies need to pay as much attention to their business model as they do to their clients. But few are organized in a way to make this happen.
This puts them on a road to limbo. Or worse yet, slow death. Slowly, the agency loses its competitive strength. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, it loses its share of the client spend. And slowly too, it loses its spirit. Not a happy picture.
The sad fact is that if the business model isnít right, nothing else works well
So, Whoís Going to Fix the Business Model?
First, a couple of definitions:
1. Business management means the establishment and maintenance of a successful business model.
2. A successful business model commands a premium in its marketplace and meets the psychic and financial needs of the agency principals and staff.
In smaller, less highly developed agencies and similar organizations, the founder or principal owner often holds the business management portfolio. This is natural. Someone has to create the initial business model. And someone has to make sure the business is soundly run.
But, as a firm grows, it is in everyoneís interest for the key players to focus more intently on their specific skill sets, particularly as their firm encounters challenges from larger, more experienced and more sophisticated competitors.
Enter the Business Manager
This is an emerging role. It needs to be thought of in a fresh way. It is essentially entrepreneurial. It is intense. And it is highly passionate.
This is not just the trusted accountant, who may be loyal and knowledgeable. Or someone skilled in finance. Nor is he a senior account person who does this in his spare time. And it should not be the leader of the agency who does this in addition to her countless other duties.
The business manager needs to have broad business skills while being an agency-guy at heart. This is a whole new function. With a whole new mission.
The primary focus of the business manager is the business. And, he should be a full-fledged member of agency leadership. With the same credibility and strength as the leaders of the other key disciplines.
In a nutshell, the business manager is responsible for the success of the business, consistent with the core values and culture of the enterprise.
For, if the business is consistently successful, the holders of the other portfolios such as account service, creative, digital, social, new business, media, planning, etc. can concentrate their entire energy on their areas of expertise. By minimizing their diversion to business issues, they can be individually and collectively more successful.
Letís Look at Those Discipline Portfolios
Within an advertising agency, or similar creative organization, there are typically four or five key leadership portfolios. Each contains a specific set of responsibilities. While it is not necessary that a different person carry each portfolio, the skill set differences are such that in larger organizations a separate individual usually holds each unique portfolio.
Typically, these four or five portfolio holders make up the senior management team. And, they often behave as partners, in the most traditional sense. The typical portfolios are:
The firmís vision and values, setting and maintaining the strategic agenda, the inspiration and rallying point for staff, and the embodiment of the firm to the outside world, with particular emphasis on business development. Standard bearers typically come from client service or creative, and in a small but growing number of cases, digital or planning.
The relationships with existing clients, including their retention and growth, management of all client activities, stewardship of client spending, attraction, development and leadership of client service talent, and participation in business development.
The quality and effectiveness of all the products of the organization (including creative, digital, media, social, production, etc.), from conceptual through completion. Attracting, developing and leading highly skilled talent, and participation in business development.
Not all firms embrace this portfolio, but when one does, it usually represents the end customer point of view and incorporates the strategic communications component that may include research, etc. With talent responsibilities as well as participation in business development.
This is the newest discrete portfolio. Essentially, this portfolio embraces everything necessary to make the business successful, except the functions described above.
Just What Does the Business Management Portfolio Contain?
No two agency business managers have the same portfolio. But, typically the business management portfolio can contain the following:
Development and maintenance of the business model
Agency strategic planning
Finance and accounting
Merger and acquisition
HR, talent attraction, upgrade and retention
HR, including benefits, support staffing
Facilities and support services
Information systems and technology
Establishment and maintenance of strategic alliances
Operations, including traffic
Business relations with clients (specifically compensation and stewardship)
Business relations with suppliers and media
Business relations with partnering organizations
Subsidiary organizations (studios, digital shops, PR firms, etc.)
In addition, and in many respects much more important, a well-developed business management portfolio includes establishing and maintaining the framework for the interactions and deliberations between the other portfolio holders. For example, the agendas and schedules for the firmís management boards, committees, etc. are usually set by the holder of this portfolio.
At a higher level, a strong business management function provides continual consultative and collaborative services to the leaders of the other functions. The other portfolio holders rely heavily on the business manager as a trusted advisor. The mind set is to build the mutual trust between business management and the other portfolios to a level whereby each can focus most intently on their area of expertise.
The most effective holders of the business management portfolio are extremely powerful. But that power is not granted by special position or authority, but rather voluntarily ceded by the holders of the other portfolios. When this level of mutual respect and trust exists, the firm can soar.
Word About Risk Aversion
An agency is a risky business. So it is easy to assume that a big part of a business managerís job is to almost automatically say no to risky initiatives proposed by others on the leadership team. Unfortunately, this view underestimates the role of a good business manager.
Success in any venture ultimately comes from taking carefully calculated risks. So a good business manager should enjoy the sport of shrewdly evaluating opportunity risks and embrace those risks that he believes worthy of taking.
What Does It Cost?
Obviously, a senior management person of this caliber is not inexpensive. And, it is easy to view such a position as a luxury. Yet, business management done well is probably one of the greatest bargains in the agency business. A good business manager brings focus, efficiency and effectiveness to a bunch of largely independent functions that if left alone easily fall out of sync, to the detriment of the entire agency. Not to mention the clients.
In short, a good business manager way more that pays for herself.
Agency of the Year
A while back a hot agency had just won the Agency of the Year Award. A reporter from Advertising Age asked the agency leader what was the most important factor in his agencyís success.
Without hesitating an instant, he replied that it was including a business manager as the partner responsible for minding the shop from the day the agency was founded. He stated that without that, the other partners could never have focused on what they needed to do to achieve the award.