How To Build A Better Agency


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Peer Networks Are My Secret Weapon 

I just came back from an agency conference (Build A Better Agency – or “BABA”) in Chicago for small to midsize agency owners and key leadership. I’ve talked before about the Agency Management Institute’s peer network that I belong to, which happens to have also created this group, and how valuable it is. Being an agency owner — or business owner of any type — can be super lonely. Your employees have each other if they in fact like each other, but the owner of the agency, or business of whatever kind, is usually left on their own to ponder their choices, and figure out what is right or wrong, as they try to valiantly lead others along — often stumbling and hopefully only getting a scraped knee in the process.

It can be quite the uphill climb. Because it’s not like agency or business owners were born just knowing how to create a successful company and what to do to make it all go right. At least I certainly wasn’t. In this blog, Hollywood Branded shares some of the trials and tribulations that we've faced in making HB into the company it is now! 


COVID Sucks, Right? 

Throw in this new Covid world of ours, and keeping a thriving business is  even more difficult. Ok, it can be a friggin’ mess. Let’s be honest here. For employees of businesses of all sizes, Covid has sucked and made life and work more difficult. But for business owners, it’s been a nightmare of stress. I can attest. It started for us with Hollywood shutting down, and then just unraveled from there. I’ve got stories of what we’ve gone through that are absolutely mindbogglingly shocking - and a whole heck of a lot more grey hair. I’m even contemplating Botox for the first time. Yep. It’s been that stressful.

That’s why I love this agency network group. Besides the fact that it puts me under a bit of good pressure to dye those greys and do a nail upgrade before charging off to the conference, I get awesome insights and feel less alone when trying to figure out how to scramble out of all the awesomeness that sometimes wacks me in the head like a sledgehammer in the moments I least expect it. I’ve felt those blows a lot over the last 3 years. The agency owners that go to the meetings are sharers, fixers, and helpers. Something I’ve noticed is a phenomenon that occurs with a lot of agency owners. Agency owners in general truly want to help, and the network group has become a safe place to do just that.

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I Get "Naked" In Front Of Other People 

Twice a year my peer group meets, and I like to say that ‘we get naked’ in front of one another. What I mean by that is, that we open our finances and go over everything in a deep dive, share all that is not perfect in our agency worlds, and learn from one another on what we could be doing better. We hear that our agency is not alone in issues a, b, c all the way to z, and back again. That the sometimes-infuriating madness of having the joys of employees is one shared by all. We can be reminded that clients on the rare can be exceptional and that others share in some absolute horrors. Everything normalizes, and the weight comes off just a bit for a moment, and we breathe – just a little deeper and easier. At least for a moment.

Being vulnerable in peer group settings

I've Bought Guns For A Criminal Underground Network In Africa

I first joined the agency network shortly after having a prior bookkeeper send ALL of our operating cash and savings to a nasty cybercrime mastermind named Michael in Nigeria. I can tell you without blinking an eye that millions of dollars of agency work had the profit go directly into buying guns and drugs for a criminal underground. So glad I worked my butt off and sacrificed so much along the way to accomplish that feat of an accomplishment.

The FBI who became involved could do nothing to help due to bureaucracy in Hong Kong where the scam had been initiated from. My bank was just an absolute fail. Years later the same thing happened to Shark Tank’s Barbara Corcoran – where she was scammed out of $400k when her bookkeeper fell for an errant email. Barbara had the PR clout to make the bank help. I didn’t at that time.

Email scams - they happen to the best of us

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...And I've Lost It All

That was a cold wake-up call. I had f*cked up. Big time. I mean, I’m not the one that fell for the scam. It was in fact glaringly obvious to me that it was a scam - but I didn’t have safeguards in place to make sure someone else on my team didn’t fall for it. My bookkeeper unfortunately did. I wrote a 3 part blog on it in fact if you want the nitty-gritty details. Just type “fraud” on our blog search bar.

And then - I had no money left at all. No money to pay employees. No money to cover overhead. It was all stolen and wiped away with no one to come to my rescue. I didn’t want to tell my team, as I thought they would be scared of losing their jobs (of course they would, right!) I didn't even want to tell my husband - who knew about it, but wasn't in the business at the time so he truly didn't 'get it.'  Not really.

So I just doubled down, and I did what I’m good at. I got laser-focused. I sold. I danced. I pitched. I sang my head off, and I got new clients in a jiffy, and projects closed so that we didn’t have to lay anyone off.  There is always more money to be made. You just have to find it.

When all else fails, pitch, pitch, PITCH

Sharing Is…Liberating

On the heels of the theft, I went to my first agency conference and had a big learning lesson that I was just reminded of this last week.

That day, seven years ago, I stood up in a room of several hundred people and I was...brutally honest. I told them how I had f’d up by not outthinking the possible. I told them what to look out for so they did not have the same thing happen to them. I’m pretty sure I cried too as I was sharing. I was transparent. I was honest. I let it all hang out.                          

And then I got my learning lesson, which has continued to shape how I run my agency today. In fact, the more I embrace this lesson, the more I myself am transformed. I shared the worst. I did not look good. I was ashamed. But that was not how others saw it. They saw that I was transparent. Open. Honest. Caring. Giving. Teaching. Relatable. All these really nice words, far nicer than the one I kept saying internally to myself: Stupid.

Dont forget to be transparent

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You Get Remembered 

When I was at the agency conference this last week – three people who had last seen me all those years ago, still remembered me. They said I helped change their lives because they were able to educate their teams and avoid the unthinkable that happened to me. That they remembered me, and thought of me. Because I was a good harbinger of what not to do. And what to be wary of.

That's been the same experience I’ve had when I’ve gone to other conferences – where I am heralded as the agency owner who spoke out. I am at least, remembered. There have been moments of pity of course, but there are more moments of admiration. After all, I’m still standing. Some days, not so sure how. 

We’re all taught to only show our best sides. To never let anyone know you are vulnerable or not the best, especially in the shark-ridden waters I seem to swim in daily between the tribulations and trials of business and agency ownership in the not-always-so-honest world of Hollywood. Sucky employees, sucky clients, sucky projects all happen, and they always involve two to tango to some degree. So diving into those things that go wrong isn't always the easiest to want to do, but honest assessments are valuable to learn from - and share. We naturally hide things from others that are unpleasant. We don’t talk about that which is uncomfortable. We keep conversations around finances and money, private.

Having gone through a whole bunch of crap – and being part of a very caring agency network on top of that, has changed me. It has changed our agency. It has caused us to be more – transparent. Because, well, why not. I’ve learned that I serve others when I am transparent and provide clarity and insights. It’s when communication gets bottled up, cobwebbed and awkward that it all goes to hell. Not typically from talking it out. Although remember I said I have stories... wowzer do I. Talking it out is not always the solution for every problem I've learned. Because both sides have to be open to being transparent. 

At Hollywood Branded, Everything We Do, We Do Transparently

My agency and I are considered industry leaders thanks to the massive investment of time we’ve put into sharing our thought leadership and educational materials. Since I launched our blog back in 2012, we’ve written over 2,000 articles, produced 300+ podcasts, taught webinars and live in-person workshops, participated in press interviews, and received mentions across hundreds of top media outlets all over the globe. We even went viral in 2019 due to a series of interviews around Game of Thrones and Starbucks, as I was able to leverage my knowledge of storytelling for clients, around our agency.

I have made the choice to invest my time, and our agency’s time, in pulling back the curtains on our industry to share best practices and marketing mistakes to avoid, in order to ensure brand stakeholders have the knowledge to make the right decisions for their brands.

In essence, I've spent a lot of time getting a little naked in sharing the truth of what makes these mutually beneficial partnerships actually work – and where others can miss the mark.

Knowledge - and sharing it - is core to our agency’s ethos, and is how our agency has built itself and rebuilt itself over and over again through these last 15 years. I believe in the importance of being open and honest, and always working together to the goal of creating mutually beneficial partnerships that benefit our clients, our production/celebrity partners, our team, and our agency.

This means that we are that rare agency that shares and does not keep things hidden. Our team knows how much every client pays. The more insight they have, the better they can approach which clients to maximize their time on, and who needs to be more swiftly moved along. We do financial discussions like ones I never experienced before, where we discuss Gross vs AGI, Net vs EBIDTA. In short, we dive into talking about money and it’s always interesting because most people share that unwelcomed harbinger of discomfort when talk turns to money. As a woman, I know this all too well. I was raised in such a polite society where you just did not ask someone what they made. You certainly did not feel comfortable saying what you felt your worth to be either even in job interviews. It’s been a fight all my life to become comfortable talking about the pink elephant in the room: Money.

Money Is Not To Be Discussed, Right? Screw That

The majority of my business negotiations – and job interviews either for myself or with others once I owned the agency, early and even midway into my career had a palpable feel as the air shifted and became heavier as the conversation turned to deep negotiations on not how to make a mutually agreeable and beneficial partnership happen between two parties – but how to get the best deal. To get one over on the other. To save the most money. Rarely was the conversation played out how it should have been. What was the amount of money, the exchange between the two, actually worth – and why it was priced that way. That was not the conversation. But I want to change that.

People I’ve discovered don’t really understand money. They don’t always grasp that it’s an exchange of an energy form for receiving one good thing and getting another good thing back. That it is the curating of skilled knowledge, experience, effort and time enable you to have the right to ask for more of it. Employees aren’t comfortable talking about it. Neither are a lot of our clients. So we’ve taken steps to change that.  And at all costs we avoid trying to haggle and beg clients for dollars - because it turns money into exactly that negative. We'd simply rather just not do the work. No one wants to do good work while feeling taken advantage of.

Our team’s employee handbook lists our salary schedule for everyone in the agency. I’ll share more on that another time. But it’s leveled the playing field. Everyone knows what each position makes, including mine, and where we need to row to in order to be able to level up as an agency. We can have better discussions targeted around how an individual wants to rise up in the organization and be about the measurable improvements they need to make to get to the next level on the salary chart, versus just discussing a raise. I haven’t perfected this whole thing yet – but it’s my goal to make our financials as transparent to the team as possible so that they can learn about money and how we make money – and help us make more of it together. It also includes changing the game on how we price our programs for clients. Transparently.

Sharing what you make with your colleagues and employees ISNT a bad thing!

hollywood branded sponsorship program

People - AKA Clients - Like Knowing What They Are Getting

At Hollywood Branded, we have different pricing levels based on the brand's life stage, which typically corresponds to the size of their respective marketing budgets. The bigger the brand, the more hoops, and hurdles are required along the way - and the more time is required by our team in order to create awesome campaigns. Time impacts range from larger (and more expensive) product inventory needs, complicated negotiations at higher stake levels, detailed offer letters and contracts, higher sensitivities at the board of director levels that require more safeguards, multiple senior leadership involvement, procurement insurance requirements, corporate bookkeeping software systems and so many other factors that just mean more billable hours.

As a result, we dedicate agency hours based on brand needs, outlining estimated workload hours as part of the process, to allow our pricing to be transparent and understandable. We trust our clients to tell us if they have had a boom in sales providing them with more marketing spend and the need to level up to the next program, as well as to tell us if they’ve had a rockslide that has crippled their spending, where they can be in the near future, scaled-down. Our transparent pricing program allows us to work as efficiently as possible with our clients to ensure their needs are not only met but surpassed.

Knowing that time gets gobbled up by bigger brands – as well as smaller brands that are less organized - we are able to scale our programs based on brand life stage, allocate hours, and be paid for them, to guarantee success. It also allows us to show where that time goes, and address if there are ways the client can give up some time if they are trying to dial back.

I was speaking with one of our Silicon Valley clients the other day, and was told that ‘tech clients value transparency’. Well – we’ve got a bundle of that. Bring on the tech clients! We share it all. Just ask. 

Dont be afraid to tell your clients how much time you spend on them.

Eager To Learn More?

Want to learn more about all of the best practices that you can implement to ensure that your agency is as successful as it can be? Look no further than Hollywood Branded's blog! We're so passionate about education and always love sharing the newest agency trends with our readers. 

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