3 agency leader segments: A new way to solve agency operational challenges

Blog post image

If you’ve ever wondered what the recipe for smooth agency operations is, you may be surprised to learn that the type of business you are – your size, how long you’ve been around, the services you offer – don’t apply. A creative agency of five can be wildly successful, yet an event agency of 2,500 can be stuck in a rut.

Our recently launched State of Agency Operations Report reveals that what impacts an agency’s operational maturity the most is the mindsets and attitudes of its leaders. It’s not what you are but how you think that will have the biggest influence on your success.

In this blog we’ll dive head-first into the research methodology to help you understand how your perspectives and attitudes are contributing to your agency’s progress, and what you can do to take your operations to the next level.

Introducing our unique attitudinal segmentation

One of the things that separates our research from others in the market is the attitudinal segmentation analysis. But what is it, exactly?

Attitudinal segmentation research asks participants to reflect on how much they agree or disagree with a series of statements. For example, on a scale of one to five (with one being strongly disagree and 5 being strongly agree), how much do you agree with the statement “Client expectations have become more challenging to meet?”

Our research participants were asked to provide their scores on a range of relevant questions like this, and through statistical analysis we were able to generate three unique agency leader segments that are all linked by the same set of attitudes and beliefs. 

Meet the three agency leader segments: Overwhelmed, Aspiring, and Confident

Blog post image

As you read the descriptions below, take a minute to fully digest them and identify which one you relate to most. After each section, we’ll provide some recommendations, so you know what steps to take next if you’re Overwhelmed, Aspiring, or Confident

Overwhelmed agency leaders are struggling the most

Blog post image

The largest segment overall, 39% of the agency leaders who participated in our research are Overwhelmed. Significantly less likely to be owners or founders, Overwhelmed agency leaders lack the decision-making power to enhance their operations. Change for these agency leaders will rely on advocacy, but a lot is getting in the way. 

More than any other segment, these agency leaders are burned out. Period.  

Their tech stack is too complicated, making it hard for their team members to learn how to use the tools effectively. It might not matter if they could because departments are often misaligned. Adding to their turmoil, their agencies need skilled employees to meet client needs, and they can’t find them. Unfortunately, they’re also losing employees in the meantime – over one in two Overwhelmed agency leaders say their agencies lost anywhere from 6-50% of their employees in the first half of 2023. 

One of their top challenges is accuracy – from updating the project management systems when projects change to doing capacity forecasting. Because their systems are so disjointed, they’re reluctant to let clients peek inside; they want to conceal their mess. 

One explanation for their operational snafus is that their tech stack is full of tools and software not made with agencies in mind. 

What to do next if you’re an Overwhelmed agency leader?

Do you see yourself in the Overwhelmed segment? You’re far from alone! Though you may feel helpless to create change, it’s important to escalate issues up the chain of command. First and foremost, Overwhelmed agency leaders need to get their operations in order. 

  1. Hire a COO to spearhead your agency’s operations. Having an in-house expert ensures your agency has somebody with the know-how to steer the ship in the right direction. 

  2. Audit your operations for skills gaps and training needs. Then create a plan for leveling up your team so they have everything they need to be successful operationally. 

  3. Seek out and suggest operational upgrades to decision-makers made for or recommended by other agencies. 

  4. Establish defined operational processes and ensure everybody is onboard and engaging in the same ways. 

  5. Check in with your team members to find out what’s working and what’s not, and ask for ideas to upgrade your operations. Send out an employee survey to gather feedback and look for patterns. 

  6. Establish regular communication touchpoints and leverage easy-to-use, accessible communication channels, like a built-in chat feature in your project management software. 

  7. Opt for an integrated tech stack; it’s less hassle to manage and eliminates the clunky day-to-day experiences that come with Frankenstein tools and software. 

  8. Use tools that offer templates and other time-saving features. You’re all busy with the ebbs and flows of client work, and your tools should make your job easier. 

Aspiring agency leaders know where they want to grow

Blog post image

About one in three agency leaders who participated in our research are in the Aspiring segment. These agency leaders are significantly more likely to be women in the owner/founder role, working in traditional agencies (marketing, advertising, creative, brand, etc.) with 50 or fewer employees. Think boutique and entrepreneur-driven. Unsurprisingly, these agency leaders have a vision for the future and have plenty of ideas for improving their operations. 

At the same time, they’re struggling. They’re two times more likely than Overwhelmed agency leaders to work more than 40 hours per week and are at high risk of burnout. They’re heavily involved in their agency’s operations, often setting up projects in their project management software and updating tasks and subtasks as things progress. 

Compared to the other two segments, they’re more likely to report various operational challenges, including difficulty completing project tasks on time, keeping projects on schedule, projecting team member utilization, and getting team members to complete timesheets on time. 

These agency leaders are also significantly more likely to overservice clients due to scoping issues, like scope creep or inaccurate scoping. Why overservice? Many say it’s to keep clients happy. 

Yet, they believe collaboration between employees and clients leads to better outcomes and that operational efficiency is one of the best ways to prevent burnout, which they experience. They know where they want to go; they just need a map. 

What to do next if you’re an Aspiring agency leader?

“Find the balance between overservicing and clients taking advantage. Communication of expectations is critical in ensuring the client and agency fully understand the SOW. This can serve as the foundation for discussions to keep everyone aligned and keep it based on facts, not emotions.”

~ Ali Lego, COO of COHN Marketing 

If you’re like the Aspiring segment from our research, your best bet for getting from Point A to Point Better operationally is to work smarter, not harder. 

  1. Protect your interests as an agency. It can be tempting to overservice because you need clients to keep the doors open, but setting expectations ensures better financial outcomes. Take a look at your SOWs – clarify, quantify, and notify. Be explicit and establish what clients can anticipate in working with you. 

  2. Delegate, ideally, to a team member with operational expertise. If you don’t have one in-house, hire one or outsource to a subject matter expert. When your agency is small, it’s common for owners/founders to have their hands in everything – you need to offload some of your tasks to focus on the big picture. 

  3. With your newfound time and freedom, audit your operations. How are your tools working for you? Do you have the level of integration you want and need? Where are you hitting snags? Then, make a step-by-step checklist for fixing your operations, prioritizing what’s impacting your agency the most first. For example, if your employees are submitting timesheets late or not at all, what’s causing that? Does everybody know how to log their time? Does your culture support time tracking, or do employees feel scrutinized? 

  4. Work with your technology vendors. Express your needs, and ask for help. Anybody you work with in this capacity should be able to provide you with resources, such as hands-on training, to train your team. 

Confident agency leaders have a strong operational foundation 

Blog post image

Our smallest group by a slim margin, Confident agency leaders are the north star for agency operations. Their culture supports organizational efficiency, and their tech stack is agency-friendly, making it easy for team members to focus on their work rather than dodge obstacles. Unique to this segment, their agencies grant employees a lot of autonomy, empowering everybody to be active participants rather than visitors. Their agencies also strive for transparency with clients, showing them inside their project management systems. The relationship between people (employees and clients) and technology is symbiotic. 

Out of any of the segments, this one is significantly more likely to say their agency embraces AI fully, seeing it as a resource to be harnessed for their benefit and a unique expertise they can offer clients. 

Unsurprisingly, Confident agency leaders are significantly more likely to say they’re extremely confident their agency will be more profitable in 2024. 

What to do next if you’re a Confident Agency leader?

“Software won’t fix poor culture or human behavior.”

~ Jacob Hoehne, Chief Impact Officer of ISSIMO Story Agency

Confident agency owners exemplify this concept – they may be using some of the same software or tools as Overwhelmed and Aspiring agency leaders; the difference is in how they champion, educate, and empower employees in their operations. 

What advice can we give Confident agency leaders? If anything, we recommend these agencies share their insights and operational expertise with others in their field – partners, peers, and collaborators. Tell others how to create a culture that transforms operations from stressful to simple. Divulge how you encourage consistent, efficient behavior in team members when they track time, check off tasks, and collaborate with each other and clients. 

Better operations are a click away. Download the full research report to learn more! 

The segments from our research show us that many intangibles can impact agency operations, such as your decision-making capacity, whether your agency has an operations-forward culture, and whether you have relationships with vendors that understand an agency’s needs. It’s about a lot more than the tools and software. 

Your agency needs solutions that consider your tangibles (tools, systems, tasks, software, etc.) and the people who work in your agency. What’s their experience like? What might they need to fit into the operational flow or contribute ideas to improve efficiency? Inside our State of Agency Operations research report, you’ll find recommendations sprinkled throughout that will help you overcome your operational challenges and become more confident.

Related Articles
View all